A straightforward reenactment of Nat Turner leading a slave uprising in 1831 could make for a great movie. It hasn’t yet, but I hope someone will get it right. The one great film about Turner, Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, is a documentary interested in how little we can truly know about the man, due to the fact that so much of his record has been muddied, falsified, exaggerated, and expunged over the years. We know plenty about the white people he and his rebels killed. The slaves doing the killing, however, remain in many ways unknowable. Turner lives on as a complicated, ambiguous figure, heroic for fighting back, condemned for the brutality and totality of his tactics. Women and children were slaughtered, but so, too, did slavery butcher and brutalize a people. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but then again there’s nothing right about letting a wrong go on unimpeded. These are richly complicated ideas, but Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation simplifies and uncomplicates it in its telling.
Parker wants to make a big statement. The actor clearly has passion in the project, taking it as his subject for his debut as writer-director. It’s his Dances with Wolves, his Braveheart, a way to throw his Hollywood clout behind a picture built to flatter his own ego while making a big, broad period piece about racial injustice. You certainly can’t doubt that he’s thinking about making a dramatic statement, to shine a light on a moment in our nation’s history that’s too often ignored or consigned to a footnote in textbooks. His determination to right a wrong extends to the title, elbowing D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film of the same name – a stirring Civil War epic that concludes in lengthy sequences of appalling black stereotypes and the KKK riding to the rescue – into sharing the spotlight with a tale more accurate and attuned to the moral arc of time. There’s little avoiding our current political climate in scenes of slobbering white men demanding slaves’ papers even when they have no reason to suspect them of a violation, in unarmed black men gunned down by people who feel justified in their control over and fear of their bodies.
But it’s no surprise that a movie about American slavery would be so harrowing and upsetting in dealing with sensitive and traumatizing material. What is surprising is how Parker brings so little illumination to his subject, trusting his audience to bring the loaded contemporaneous associations and historical context into the theater with them. He glosses past Turner’s upbringing, a young slave boy allowed to read because of his interest in the Bible, who then becomes a preacher rented out to other plantations in order to keep their slaves docile through the opiate of twisted scripture. It’s told in obvious gestures and borrowed imagery, as if he figured we’d seen 12 Years a Slave and Roots and the rest so he could let it play out in shorthand and stock types. But unlike those other, better works – and the many others besides – Parker’s tale isn’t interested in deepening our understanding or complicating our assumptions or peeking into the lived experience of the institution. He’s too interested in flattering himself as a performer – giving him tearful reactions to traumas others are dealing with, and providing opportunities for grand speeches and inspiring low-angle shots – to allow anyone in the talented ensemble (Dwight Henry, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union...) to make more than fleeting impressions.
Shooting it all in a pale blue digital glow which softens even the harshest violence, Parker simplifies and streamlines the narrative, to the detriment of his larger goals. It’s a fascinating story of Christian scripture as a double-edged sword, the preacher teaching the slavers’ self-serving self-justification version of bondage and freedom before turning and using the fire and brimstone of righteous anger to foment a rebellion. But Parker makes Turner’s story into simple Chosen One willpower – complete with mystical prophecy, cloudy visions, and an angelic symbol – and easy morality. He’s upset by what he sees, but is finally jolted to action because of an attack on his wife (Aja Naomi King), a woman reduced to a prop, her suffering the literal background of his story. Then, in the revolt itself, the real facts of the case – indiscriminate murder, followed by indiscriminate reprisals – are glossed over to create a more convenient tone of uncomplicated tragic martyrdom and comfortable retribution. The nice white people live. The ones who start nice but grow mean are attacked off screen. The worst of the whites (like Jackie Earle Haley, who does most of the worst) die slow, bloody deaths on screen as if it’s only a simple matter of revenge instead of also an attack on an institution.
This leaves the movie too often looking away, not digging into the nastiness and moral complications of the surrounding context. Its beginning is evocative, Turner silhouetted against a stained-glass window while his master (Armie Hammer) bleeds out. Its aftermath is powerful: a long, slow pull back to reveal body after body lynched, hanging in a tree while “Strange Fruit” anachronistically appears on the soundtrack. But after the sluggish build up, the central event is too indifferently staged and over before you know it. We came to see a story about a man, but he’s blandly developed. We came to see an uprising, an attempt to spark a Civil War that ended in horrible defeat. And then it, too, is used for the least effect it could have. The events within The Birth of a Nation are inherently powerful, and kick up provocative and complicated questions. But the movie itself does too little with this powder keg on which it sits. To the extent it’s interesting it’s in spite of itself, not because. The events that should be shocking feel routine, and no character emerges as fully humanized, not even the Turner who is so scrubbed of all complications even as he draws all focus. Talk about a missed opportunity.