Nate Parker is an ambitious man, directing, writing and starring as the lead in his first feature film. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ explores the historically significant story of Nate Turner in 1831, whose actions are believed to have been the spark for events such as, The Civil War and abolishment of slavery 33 years later. Nate Turner was a slave who became a preacher and travelled with his master across the country, preaching to other slaves whose masters feared they were not being as subservient as they ought to be.
‘The Birth of a Nation’ took Nate Parker seven years to make and his hard work has come to fruition in a refreshing and savagely brutal depiction of slavery, one that is a far more accurate depiction of the subject than previous films have shown. The film opens with a scene shrouded in mythology, spiritualism, religious parallels all of which is accompanied by strong African music and it is these themes that give the film purpose. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ constantly moves between two tones, the simplistic and the profound without ever touching on anything that resembles a healthy middle ground between the two extremes, which works to the benefit of the film.
The film follows Nate from this early life as a somewhat gormless child playing with the child form of Armie Hammer’s character Samuel Turner, who grows up to own Nate. Samuel and Nate play together as innocent children, a rare sight for that period, particularly when set against the backdrop of the typical large white house with trees surrounding it that one instantly associates with that period in the state of Virginia. It’s a powerful message from Parker that we are all innocent as children and free in thought before prejudice is instilled upon us by our elders and our environment. It is this type of imagery that seems to play to Parker’s strength as intelligent imagery is an almost consistently powerful force throughout the film, and through a culmination of the costumes, the religious scripture, the music and the violence, these components are able to turn this film into something unique. Where the imagery fails to be quite as effective are those scenes within Nate’s mind where he seems to be undergoing some form of spiritual awakening.
The use of brutality and violence is vivid, and at times grotesque, indeed there was one moment in particular where even I had to look away. Whether that says more about my own tolerance of violence and torture, who knows, but this is not a film for the faint of heart. However, the level of grotesque violence and the sheer horror element of this film is totally appropriate, but oddly is something I don’t think I have witnessed in a film exploring this subject before. Therefore, this film does deserve credit for pushing the boundaries by displaying the immoral treatments of human beings and therefore creating a film that so far most accurately depicts the treatment of slaves. This level of violence ties into the level of discomfort you should feel throughout, particularly from Jackie Earle Haley performance as Raymond Cobb whose role is to find, abuse, and return any black people he finds alone.
The script relies somewhat too heavily on religious scripture to provide the backbone of the film. Those scenes which stayed in my mind did so because of the large sections of religious scripture that Nate recites, and these moments he displays his best performance.
Though profound in many ways, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ also misses a few crucial steps. The characters are often quite simplistic, which is appropriate for the period, however, Penelope Ann Miller’s character Elizabeth Turner is woefully underused. In the film, she is the only white character see great potential in Nate, as evidenced by her lessons where she teaches him to read. However, once she has performed her duty of imparting knowledge to Nate, she almost fades into the background as one of the few morally conscious characters. She is shown to be aware of the immoral way in which Nate is being treated because as a woman she too is restricted. Therefore, there is a comradery between Nate and Elizabeth that although touched upon, would I feel, have given the film greater depth had it been explored further. Instead, the film focuses on Samuel, an alcohol slave owner trying to return honour the family name which is quite dull though appropriate for the period.
Indeed, nearly every character development feels orchestrated around Nate’s character, which is appropriate if not also frustrating that we are not allowed to explore them in their own capacity, rather than as fuel for Nate. There is a keen sense of how Nate’s consequences will affect those around him and those who are simply trying to survive. All these missed opportunities would perhaps serve a greater purpose with further exploration in the film, rather than watching an alcohol Samuel drinking alone in the field.
OVERALL *** A film that feels appropriately made, with the use of profound if at times simplistic imagery. The script relies too heavily on religious scripture to provide it’s more powerful moments. A balanced awareness of the consequences from both sides of the argument provides a thoughtful approach to a dark subject that must never be forgotten.
RECOMMENDATION – This is not for the faint hearted as one of the more violent depictions of slavery I have seen. It’s not quite groundbreaking enough to demand to be watched, but if you have an interest in the subject I would recommend.