For me, it was impossible to view “The Birth of a Nation” without the bias of Nate Parker’s past. In college, Parker was accused of raping an intoxicated student (along with fellow student Jean McGianni Celestin). Parker was acquitted of the crime, and the victim committed suicide. The negative publicity followed Parker throughout the press release of his first directorial film.
I tried to view the finished film without that knowledge in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t. Perhaps that has influenced my overall interpretation of the film. Perhaps someday I’ll try to revisit it with a fresh perspective. But for now, looking solely at the movie and it’s quality by itself, it seems to be rather clunky.
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is a slave in the south who learns how to read and becomes a preacher. He orchestrates a slave uprising, killing slave-holding families until his band is captured and hanged.
Taking the title directly from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”, the film is a slap in the face to the racism inherent in that story. The action scenes are handled well and the buildup utilizes film composition, cinematography and sound to great extent.
The problem comes with Nat Turner’s characterization itself. Not to excuse the behavior of the slave holders, but when Turner begins killing them, it doesn’t feel heroic or like justice; it feels like murder, and he revels in it. The film’s attempt for us to feel sympathetic with a murderous uprising falls flat, and we look at Turner as delusional rather than inspiring. Watching the trailer above, it feels like false marketing, almost an entirely different movie than the one ultimately shown.
Turner feels like he is using God as an excuse for murder (something all too similar in modern times) and his constant visions of angels and whatnot only contribute to the feeling that Turner is not a messiah, but a lunatic.
Perhaps the times we live in do not lend themselves to sympathy with Turner’s rebellion. In this era where violence of any kind is discouraged as counterproductive, asking for sympathy for a band of murderers (however justified their actions may be) feels empty. Black film has made leaps and bounds in recent years with critically acclaimed films such as “Selma”, “12 Years a Slave” and “Get Out.” But those films speak of compassion and love. “The Birth of a Nation” speaks to anger and seems out of place.