Some movies are meant solely to entertain, and some to shed light on contemporary issues. Some take it upon themselves to portray historical events through a medium that allows for visceral experiences, and some of those take it even further by connecting history to modern times.
Recent films such as Selma, Straight Outta Compton and even Zootopia fit a variety of combinations of those niches, all with one thing in common: they all comment on very real issues pervading societal discourse today, taking advantage of film to bring uncomfortable but necessary discussion to the forefront, whether through fiction or historical accuracy, family films or darker fare.
The Birth of a Nation joins that group, a movie that is perhaps the most forthright with the statements it makes, a no-holds-barred bloody symphony as enlightening as it is gruesome.
Nate Parker pulls triple duty here, having written and directed The Birth of a Nation as well as starring as Nat Turner, the black slave preacher turned rebellion leader who learned to see past the biblical ideologies that were keeping his and other slaves in line, instead using is as a rallying cry.
Parker himself is exceptional, nailing a most sincere portrayal of a slave who has learned to deal with his situation by making good with God and his owner, Samuel, who treats Nat and his other slaves ostensibly about as well as they could have been treated in the antebellum South.
Turner may not know that yet, but once he finds out – bearing witness to the inhumane atrocities endured by other slaves – the agony he feels is painful but necessary to endure. Turner becomes a fighter, his literacy a weapon.
It’s a delicate, gradual change that is conveyed in Turner, profound and symbolic of what the audience knows is to come just a few decades later. While the script is not consistently engaging the whole way through, strong performances from the rest of the case keeps the audience invested in what they see on screen, in every horror that is depicted.
Memorable visual cues, as well as the score, also serve to put a timeless image to the plight at hand, one where systematic forces serve to blind those in a lesser positions in order to keep them in line. Symbols such as the subtle depictions of Turner as a Christ-like figure serve to manifest the film’s theme that there is weakness in using ideology to motivate the actions of one group of people, one side of a conflict.
When Turner reaches a tipping point and elects for conflict, unfortunately that’s where The Birth of a Nation leaves some to be desired, and where Parker the director makes questionable choices. As a whole, the film movies along fairly quickly – never dragging – but also placing so much focus and attention on Turner slowly opening his eyes to the plight of slaves beyond his own plantation that the payoff feels a little rushed by comparison to its buildup.
Blood is shed as Turner almost – almost – becomes someone coldly seeking retribution, and not fighting for what is right by him and others in his situation.
Parker doesn’t revolutionize storytelling; the narrative is straightforward, which is probably the best way to depict the brutally honest nature of his script. It’s a solid directorial debut, with just a little more to be desired from its third act.
Thankfully, it doesn’t reach that point completely, and by its final moments the film does well to depict the long-term impacts of the film’s events, and the small part they had leading up to the much grander conflict of the Civil War.
The Birth of a Nation is a powerful film, evocative of themes we’ve seen played out on screen before but imploring the audience to pay special attention to the figurative shackles placed on the arms of slaves. It forces us to confront America’s dark past in a way that makes it hard to neglect what is happening in 2016.
The Birth of a Nation is rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley
Directed by Nate Parker