The Birth of a Nation (2016) review
Papa Shango Unchained
In 1831, in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner was a slave who learned how to read and write, spoke The Lord’s gospel after attaching himself to The Bible, and became the leader of a violent slave rebellion that claimed the lives of 55 to 65 people. While the rebellion only lasted a handful of days, it also had the most fatalities of any slave uprising in the Southern United States. After Turner was hanged following two months in hiding, African American slaves were punished and/or executed based solely on their occupation and skin color whether they were thought to be involved with the rebellion or not.
The Birth of a Nation is based on not only the revolution that Nat Turner would eventually lead, but also his life leading up to that point. The period drama is the directorial debut for actor Nate Parker (Red Tails, Non-Stop), who also co-produced and co-wrote the film while starring as Turner himself.
What’s unusual is that Turner’s on-screen life prior to his savage uprising is more interesting than his blood-soaked insurrection. The character seems to feel like he’s chosen right from the start as the unique birthmark on his chest is revealed to be that of a natural leader during a voodoo ritual. He barely squeaks by with his parents and grandmother living in a shack and doing slave labor just to survive. His life seems to turn around for the better once his owners realize he can read, but it’s a privilege that is soon revoked.
As an adult, Nat had already begun giving religious speeches and inspiring the slaves around him. His childhood friend Samuel Turner (played by Armie Hammer) is now his owner and takes Nat on the road to make money off his preaching in a struggle to stay profitable. Along the way a young, drug addicted slave girl named Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is bought by Samuel for $275 (after Nat practically begs for the transaction). She cleans herself up and eventually becomes Nat’s wife.
Nate Parker is electrifying as Nat Turner. His emotional range is extraordinary while his passionate and wistful preaching triggers anger and sadness in himself in the heat of the moment. At the same time though, it seems as if Parker purposely hogs the spotlight without giving much of anyone else the opportunity to make an impact. While it’s a story revolving around the character Parker is portraying, you can’t help but feel like the rest of the cast is overshadowed. Nat’s mother is raped all for the sake of impressing Samuel’s guests. His parents are shoved aside as is his wife once she’s beaten and raped by the deranged plantation overseer Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley). While this all motivates Nat’s actions, you can’t help but desire something more from these characters since you don’t get to see much of how these terrible circumstances affected them afterwards.
Once Nat Turner snaps, every inch of the film becomes drenched with blood. The Birth of a Nation suddenly takes a page out of Gangs of New York or the finale of Django Unchained and becomes this crimson stained revenge thriller. While it’s a sudden shift, it’s not totally unexpected and doesn’t ruin the film in the slightest. Seeing the cruel way slaves were treated in the 1800s has become the focal point of films like this and for good reason; it’s captivating in a heartbreaking kind of way since we all know that’s how it was back then. The mindset back then was, “Why treat property like human beings?” The Birth of a Nation loses its momentum once the rebellion occurs because everything seems to occur so quickly after that and you never once believe that he can actually pull off a successful pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
What hurts the film more than anything is that 12 Years a Slave succeeds where The Birth of a Nation doesn’t. 12 Years a Slave was the story of one man who was abducted into slavery and bounced around from plantation to plantation for 12 years with seemingly no hope of ever making it back home. While The Birth of a Nation revolves around Nate Parker, it seems as though he sets off on his path of righteousness in an effort to free all of his brothers and sisters. The issue is it feels like The Birth of a Nation doesn’t dig into your emotions as well or as often as 12 Years a Slave is able to. Nate Parker’s film strikes gold occasionally, but only gets the tip of what would’ve been a bigger sentimental payday.
The Birth of a Nation is a solid first directorial effort from Nate Parker. The balancing of characters other than the lead needs work and the film lacks a distinct style despite having moments of haunting imagery like the gasp-inducing hanging tree sequence. The period drama is much better than the current abysmal rating it has on IMDb, but the presentation of Nat Turner’s story falters often enough to keep a good film from being a great and memorable cinematic experience.