This earnest yet cliche-ridden dramatization of Nat Turner's 1831 slave revolt takes a riveting moment in American history and sucks the energy out of it, leaving us with a rote and oddly unmoving biopic.
Indeed, the public reaction to The Birth of a Nation has proven to be the more compelling story. Premiering at Sundance in the heat of the "Oscars So White" controversy, in which almost zero minorities were nominated for Academy Awards that season, the film emerged as a remedy: here was epic, Oscar-ish material, with a large black cast and a black director. Fox Searchlight dove into the deafening buzz and scooped up the film for a record-breaking $17.5 million. Then, months later, the do-gooders who championed the film's existence did a 180 when word spread that writer/director/producer/star Nate Parker had been tried for raping a woman in 1999. Although Parker was acquitted, the ugliness of the case – compounded by the victim's suicide in 2012 – came back to haunt him, bringing up the old "can you separate the artist from his art" debate.
In the midst of all this, I went to The Birth of a Nation to see if it was actually a good movie. My assessment: it's merely mediocre.
The revolt itself only takes up a few minutes in the third act. The rest of the film is a fawning portrait of Nat Turner (Parker), taking what few biographical details we have of the man and turning him into a noble, soft-spoken hero who, after years of witnessing horrific acts against his people, finally fought back. Parker never questions Turner's mindset or motives. It's as if Turner was shooting his own autobiography.
By giving us such a righteous and romantic protagonist, Parker doesn't let us have valid reactions to Turner and his acts. (He and his men slaughtered about 60 white Southerners, many in their sleep.) Hounded by religious visions, the real Nat Turner was arguably delusional – whether by nature or because of a lifetime of enslavement, we'll never know. Certainly it was crazy for him to think that his small, untrained army could murder dozens of slaveholders with no repercussions. Yet we don't see this in the film. Turner's visions are rendered as cinematic flourishes, not as suggestions that Turner was mad. He is depicted as a talented preacher, but we're shown little of the doubt and fear that his fellow slaves must have felt in rising up against their masters, or how Turner's leadership gave them courage. If we could have seen the strategies Nat Turner used to plot his mission, his struggle with committing mass murder (in the name of the lord, no less) and the likely consequences, or at least a scene of him losing his marbles, that would have been helpful. Instead, the rebellion seems to happen on a whim: "Say, fellas, I'm tired of this crap. Let's go on a killing spree." "Okay, Nat. We're in."
While Nat Turner's life was surely hell and we can certainly understand his rage, he was also a crazy bastard who thought himself a prophet, and believed God told him to kill whites at will, including women and children. By glossing over the complexities of this unusual man, The Birth of a Nation provokes little thought, and ultimately fails as a dramatic narrative.