The Sundance Film Festival has always been a friendly home for any movie that takes on the demons of racial politics. In the case of The Birth of a Nation, which dramatizes the Virginia slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1831, the buzz before the premiere was even more excited than usual, and for very timely reasons. The controversy over the ‘all-white’ Oscars has been a subject of fevered conversation here all week. Beyond that, the last year in the US, with its litany of police shootings and the rise of Black Lives Matter, has been an incendiary one in the ongoing dialogue about race. To see a large-scale independent production based on one of the seminal events in African-American history, written and directed by its star, Nate Parker, is to see Sundance coming to the Hollywood’s rescue.
There’s something a little too cautiously retrograde about the whole thing
So how is the movie? It’s scrupulous and honorable, with moments of scalding power. But it’s also just good enough to make me wish it had been better. No one can accuse Parker of lacking ambition. It took seven years to bring The Birth of a Nation to the screen, and its very title tells you that he’s out to create a counter-mythology: a film that might theoretically displace DW Griffith’s sweeping and scandalous 1915 silent epic that’s one of the foundation stones of Hollywood history. What’s more, to present a drama of slavery not so long after 12 Years a Slave, the most searing and artful movie ever made on the subject, is to scale a very high bar. Parker proves a competent filmmaker, but in a slightly flat, middle-of-the-road way that’s halfway between Edward Zwick and Ron Howard. If the film were as good as Zwick’s 1989 Glory, I’d have no complaints, but it isn’t. It features a musical score that’s atrocious in its bland sentimentality, and there’s something a little too cautiously retrograde about the whole thing. It’s like a rerun of Roots with more blood.
In one of the most unforgettable scenes in 12 years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o’s character is being whipped, and the camera fixes on her face (the way it always does in scenes like this) until it suddenly spins around to show us the leather tearing at her flesh; at that moment, the film slices through ‘movie reality’ to reveal a far more agonizing truth. In The Birth of a Nation, there’s a whipping scene as well: Nat Turner is being punished for his insubordination. But Parker stages it in the old, safe, clichéd way, with the camera never leaving his face – and that could be a metaphor for the entire film. It skates along on the psychological surface, and it’s never audacious or revelatory.
‘More staid than sensational’
Working within that mode, however, Parker draws us in. At first, the plantation where Nat grows up is made to seem relatively benign. The master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), treats Nat with ‘decency’, and he even lets Nat convince him to purchase a slave (Aunjanue Ellis) at auction in what feels like a rescue. She becomes Nat’s wife, and for a while their love is sweet, tender, healing. The audience thinks: inside this prison, maybe they can have a life. Nat becomes a preacher, making money for his master by delivering sermons to small groups of plantation slaves. It’s a way of keeping them in line, but what the preaching teaches Nat is to have supreme faith in his words, his thoughts – a radical notion for someone living in bondage.
The relative peace comes to an end when Nat accompanies Mr Turner to an important dinner party, where one of the female guests demands the overnight company of Nat’s fellow slave, who refuses. When Nat intercedes on his behalf, we see the master’s true colors. His ‘decency’ ends the moment that Nat steps out of his place.
Why does the horror of slavery boil over in Nat in a way it never does in his fellow victims?
Parker has been a superb actor in films like Red Tails and Arbitrage, and he makes Nat a commanding and admirable presence, but he doesn’t make him fascinating. The trouble is in the script. The film invites us to connect the dots of everything that leads up to Nat’s daring rebellion: the violence he witnesses as a boy, his alienation from his master, the brutal treatment of his wife, and one terrifying moment in which a slave who refuses to eat gets his teeth hammered out. But why does the horror of slavery finally heat up and boil over in Nat in a way that it never does in his fellow victims? That’s the key dramatic question, and the movie never fully answers it. As a filmmaker, Parker doesn’t worm his way inside the story of Nat Turner so much as he simply presents it.
The rebellion, given its total anarchy, unfolds in a nearly dignified fashion. The planning, the gathering of weapons, even Nat walking into the bedroom of a plantation owner and planting an axe in his chest: all of it feels more staid than sensational. That tone expresses a dimension of the film’s theme, since Nat insists that their motivation is freedom, not vengeance. The climax of The Birth of a Nation is neither demagogic nor bloodthirsty (though it could have been both). When Nat plunges a knife into the throat of the most despicable white man we’ve seen in the film (he’s played by Jackie Earle Haley, a virtuoso of vileness), the camera gazes at the act objectively; the oppressor simply got what was coming to him. But watching that moment, I realised that what it’s not just vengeance we are distant from. We’re removed from what’s going on inside Nat. Planning and executing this historic insurrection, he never shows fear, or doubt, or rage. He’s so squarely heroic that he has no other dimension.
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