In 1915 D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, a film that’s technical supremacy radically altered the course of filmmaking for the century to come. Yet while it was a masterpiece of filmmaking in general, it also bears the legacy of being one of the most racist films ever made due to its sickening portrayal of African Americans and its divine praise of the KKK—whom the film posits as the saviors of our country.
A hundred years later and Nate Parker has decided to reclaim the name in order to represent something better; something hopeful. Parker’s Birth of a Nation follows the life of Nat Turner, the slave and preacher who rose up amongst his brethren to finally fight back after centuries of misery.
At a young age, Nat (played by Parker) is told he is special, having the marks of courage, wisdom and vision. He learns to read, though only because he can be “trained” to be a better slave because of it, and finds solace in the bible. We follow him through the years as he witnesses atrocities and tries to come to terms with them, slowly losing his patience. Parker does a suitable job as Nat, though there is such a depth to this character that he can’t quite reach it.
Parker, who also wrote—and produced—the film seems less concerned with inner-character relationships and dynamics and more focused with the story in general. Most supporting characters are never delved into, but often represent motivations for Parker to rise up. The three duos that comprise the film are that of Nat and his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King); Nat and his mother; and Nat and Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer).
The most interesting—and sorely unexamined—is that of Nat and Sam who were childhood friends only to have Sam grow to be Nat’s master. There is so much there underneath the veneer of their new relationship, as if Nat wants to explode out and rage to his former friend for the atrocities he now faces because of him. But Hammer’s performance is particularly interesting as he essentially spends the film holding a bottle in his hand—perhaps out of guilt, perhaps out of shame.
There’s a lot to like about The Birth of a Nation, particularly its sense of style and the amount of weight each scene tends to have. This is by no means a pleasant film, and much like other films dealing with the subject of slavery, there is no shortage of brutality. However, Parker gets a little overzealous with his religious symbology as much of it lacks any subtlety whatsoever. Parker continually shows this is his directorial debut as he zips through the highlights of the story as if to get to the conclusion faster, as if he himself couldn’t make the film any longer because of the pain. But adding just ten more minutes to the film would’ve helped underscore the slow passage of time in bondage and the divine sense of freedom when he rises up.
Even more appropriate to the times as 12 Years a Slave was, Birth of a Nation tries its hardest to reclaim its title for freedom instead of hate. Parker crafts an astonishing film that surely inspires, but loses a few points for not digging a little deeper into the pain and triumph’s of his characters.