With “The Birth of a Nation,” writer-director-actor Nate Parker joins the company of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson, not in directorial prowess, but for ability to attract controversy — the kind capable of eclipsing the meaning and merit of their art.
His retelling of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in prewar Virginia, framed largely by the story of the crucifixion, owes more to Gibson (who is thanked in the credits) and “The Passion of the Christ” than “Twelve Years a Slave” or any “slave movie” lazily used as a reference point.
The film itself, absent the peripheral debate about Parker, focuses on Nat’s upbringing and rise from the cotton fields to being a traveling preacher, going from plantation to plantation to extol the biblical virtues of submission and pacification to his fellow slaves. Nat’s owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) tags along, swigs booze and collects the money his fellow plantation owners shell out in hopes of keeping their workers docile.
Turner soon converts his disciples to take up arms with a simple equation: For each piece of scripture to justify enslavement, there’s another favoring their freedom – which must be won through killing. Beyond the parallels to America’s ongoing struggle with race, “The Birth of a Nation” works best as examination of man’s interpretation of faith and how it is used to condone and inspire atrocity.
One author has connected this “spiritual logic” for revolt to modern-day jihadist terrorists. But Parker imbues Turner’s violence with righteousness to cement Nat’s historical narrative: it’s the slave owners who have perverted faith to justify evil, one of whom puts it as plainly as possible: “I don’t care how good a preacher he is, just as long as he says what he’s supposed to.” Is it too obvious which characters are on the right side of history here? Perhaps — google “Colin Kaepernick” and tell me just how healthy our nation is when reacting to black Americans protesting.Then consider that a vast majority of America reacts with as much determination as Samuel’s mother (Penelope Ann Miller) when Nat’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is attacked by slave hunters: “God’s gonna punish whoever did this.” That’s something, I guess.
The film is violent yet calculated in the horrors shown: Hanged bodies, whip-flayed backs and even a bit of plantation dentistry that may qualify as one of the more grotesque moments in American cinema this year. The audience, however, is spared the sight of female slaves being beaten and raped.
Amid the carnage are some fleeting moments of visual wonder. Young Nat’s introduction to the cotton fields and his unpracticed hands being bloodied on the bristles seamlessly transitions to him as a young man still toiling away, almost a lifetime gone by. A slaver’s whip fluidly snakes through the dirt and leaves like a serpent before being viciously cracked into service to punish Nat, shackled with his arms stretched out much like Jesus on the cross. But those moments are never allowed to breathe — only two or three exceptional long shots remain intact amid a flurry of over-editing.
Give credit to Parker and the rest of his acting ensemble for being up to the task of their character’s emotions, but the entire film suffers from what feels like anachronistic dialogue. Aside from half a handful of the more repugnant white characters, with their lack of education conveyed through near-unintelligible twang, most of the characters’ word choices and a good chunk of their dialects seem out of place and time for early 19th century Virginia.
The only reason the language of this film is exceptional in any way is its title: Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” is an act of reclamation, a direct jab at the D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan epic. Parker likely will never come near the artistic mastery of the art form that Griffith exhibited 100 years ago, but with the simple act of appropriating the title, he has placed both this work and his own life in that rarefied air where both beg consideration from society at large. It’s a provocation that may amount to little many years from now, yet we still find ourselves transfixed. Go back to Google and count up all those Colin Kaepernick thinkpieces you found.
In other words: You’re forgiven if you walk out underwhelmed — that is, so long as you’re not walking in thinking this is an “important” film. That kind of label should only come after the credits, not before you buy the ticket.
Like Gibson’s “Passion,” “The Birth of a Nation” is cinematically competent with a clear message of Christian values at its core. And just like “Passion,” this film hinges so much on what’s been written about its maker. For every piece of Parker’s personal story that might lead you to believe he’s truly innocent and living with the ghost of a crime he didn’t commit, there’s an inescapable air about things that leaves you wondering if he’s the beneficiary of a justice system that hasn’t delivered on its promise to abused women. It’s a tremendous Rorschach test for society, fascinating enough to perhaps be the most-discussed story of sex, crime and Penn State in a year when hundreds upon hundreds of people continue to massage the legacy of Joe Paterno — that’s 2016 for you, I guess.
Time will tell if viewers judge Parker’s storytelling, flawed as it is, apart from Parker himself.
“The Birth of a Nation” is rated R. Running time: Two hours. Three stars out of five.