It’s a sad testament, both to the world we live and the quality of this film, that the most resonant aspect of The Birth of a Nation is its title. Though deliberately taken from D. W. Griffith’s ruthlessly racist 1915 epic about the Ku Klux Klan, its meaning in regard to the story Nate Parker tells, serves to underscore the legacy of systematic racism still shamefully preserved within American society.
Parker pivots his narrative around the life of Nat Turner (whom he also plays), a slave who worked the cotton fields of Southampton County, Virginia, in the 1820s, and who went on to lead an uprising against his captors in 1831 that many believe expedited the coming of the Civil War. In subsequent testimony, Turner claimed to have been compelled by religious visions to revolt, and that it was God’s will that he should lead the charge. But in this interpretation, his resolve is impelled predominately by the barbaric conditions of the slaves he meets whilst visiting other plantations as a preacher, forced to sermonise on submission by his master (Armie Hammer); like many other details, suggestions of fundamentalism have been rubbed from the records by the writer/director.
Given the media furore surrounding Parker in the press, it is crucial to ensure you separate the art from the artist when analysing this film. And indeed, it cannot be denied that in the lead role he makes a profound impact, giving a heated performance that shows Turner as a caring, compassionate soul caught in a desperate world of cold-hearted cruelty from which there appears to be no escape; the grey shading of Elliot Davis’ lens adding a palpable air of despondency.Behind the camera is where his immaturity as a filmmaker shows, a heavy-handed grasp of the material offering us only a shallow version of what is a deep and complex history. Parker’s telling of Turner’s tale frames him solely in the centre, everyone around him is a cipher. Treatment of the few female characters is particularly troubling, their own traumas – Nat’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King, wonderfully talented yet woefully ill-served) is, in one pivotal instance, gang-raped by a group of snarling slave catchers – operating only as a device to propel the plot, negating their suffering.
Comparisons between The Birth of a Nation and 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s powerful, pioneering adaptation of Solomon Northup’s harrowing memoir, are inevitable, but futile. This film, with its contrived script and strained score, more closely resembling the stilted tone of Gibson’s Braveheart.
There’s plenty that’ll provoke – the sight of a slave owner force-feeding his chattel is an arresting spectacle that’s hard to shake – but little will challenge. Curiously, Parker’s direction fails to muster any real fury, the subsequent lack of aggressive urgency undermining both the film’s influence, and its significance. A story of such magnitude deserves a far more commanding voice.