The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation tells the true life story of slave preacher turned revolutionary Nat Turner and the actions he took to stand up for his people.
A film about slavery is always going to be an emotionally charged experience given the horrific things that were done to people when it was the norm. As topics go it’s probably one of the heaviest that can ever be depicted.
This particular film does a lot of things well but as an overall experience I think that it pales to superior efforts like 12 Years a Slave. It’s an unfair comparison in a lot of ways as that film will be heralded as the gold standard for many years to come so it feels dismissive to not let The Birth of a Nation stand on its own merits.
Both films hit many of the same beats but I think this one does enough differently to be considered a different approach to it. Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is a character who does have some distance from the atrocities done to his people at first which allows for a really broad perspective. His role as a travelling preacher allows him to see the treatment of slaves happening on a grand scale and the gradual development of the disgust he feels is handled really well.
One thing I really liked is that the slave owners are portrayed in different ways. Some of them are sadistic and there are others who are more gentle but it is clear that they are all guilty of the same crime no matter how well they happen to treat others. It’s an effective way of showing that there were different ways that owners dealt with their slave and lets the audience ponder the question of whether that makes a difference or not for themselves.
The slave uprising is something that isn’t glamourised either. Nat and his followers are shown to commit unspeakable acts of brutality on people and it really hammers home that even righteous uprisings aren’t as black and white as people would like them to be. Neither side is entirely innocent but the conviction held by Nat and those that follow him is seen to be inspiring. It’s a complex conflict that is allowed to play out in a complex way.
Nat as a character is really well developed and is shown to have many different interactions that shape his views on the issue. The progression from being a fairly placid preacher to revolutionary feels mostly natural and Parker does a lot with facial expressions to show how Nat feels inside throughout.
Some of the imagery in this film is absolutely brutal and difficult to watch. There’s a scene involving force feeding that made me wince and will probably stick with me for quite some time. The reminders that nobody was exempt from the brutality towards the end were really visceral and effective too.
The film falls apart slightly once it gets to the actual revolution. A lot of time is spent building up to it but everything after that point feels somewhat rushed. It’s almost like time completely ran out and the film simply needed to end. There’s an extended story to be told around how people reacted to the uprising rather than showing key points in the conflict for shock value.
Some of this fault lies in underdeveloped characters. Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) definitely feels like a small part of the story when her role should have been a significant one considering how heavily she inspired Nat to not put up with the atrocities any more. Jackie Earle Haley’s Raymond Cobb could have been better developed as an antagonist as well. Outside of Nat the characters mostly felt very superficial which made it harder to engage with the overall story beyond the topic.
A competently handled film that has some flaws in characterisation and the abruptness of the conclusion. Nat Turner is very well developed and Nate Parker does a really good job playing him through a gradual development towards leading an uprising. The film has a lot of brutal imagery to show how difficult a time it was for those who were enslaved and puts forward the lack of innocence on either side using that brutality. One interesting angle was the depiction of slave owners being both cruel and gentle but still guilty of the same crimes. I did feel that the uprising itself felt a little rushed and lacked that personal connection to the characters but as an overall exploration of slavery the film does a lot right.