Review: 'The Birth Of A Nation' is a furious act of subversive historical drama
Recently, I've found myself having to discuss some very difficult moments from history with my oldest son because I am deeply frustrated by the history he's being taught in school. It's the same history I was taught, whitewashed and sanitized and, unfortunately, not true. It's hard to explain to him that he has to regurgitate the bullshit version of things in order to pass his tests, and he's getting angry about the vast differences between what he's taught and what actually happened.
When I emerged from today's screening of Nate Parker's exceptional The Birth Of A Nation today at Sundance, I overheard an exasperated "How many movies do they have to make about slavery?", and it almost stopped me in my tracks. It's not my job to get into an angry argument with anyone about a movie, but that sentiment almost did it. The correct answer to that question is "As many as it takes for us to stop denying that America's history was written in blood and skin." While I admire Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, part of the point of that story is that it was an anomaly, and following a free man into the world of slavery, black or not, gave us a tourist's view of life in the time of slavery. This is decidedly not that film, and as a result, there's no comfortable distance that you can maintain as a viewer.
Instead, this is a battle cry, a profoundly angry film that simmers for a good deal of its running time. The title itself is wonderfully subversive. D.W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation holds a very specific place in the history of narrative filmmaking, and you can't deny how important it is in terms of cinematic language. However, it is a vile film, philosophically, and one that I hate seeing taught in film school. It is the American Triumph Of The Will, technically significant but reprehensible, and for Nate Parker to apply that title to this particular film is an act of cultural reappropriation that I have to applaud. There are plenty of choices like that in the film, including casting Armie Hammer, who is pretty much the human embodiment of white privilege, as Samuel Turner, the slave owner who owns Nat Turner (Parker). But simply being slyly subversive is not enough to make this a good film. In the end, it either works as a movie or it doesn't, and it very clearly does.
Written, directed by, and starring Nate Parker, the story follows Nat Turner's moral evolution, from his childhood through the violent revolt he led in 1831, and it does so in very blunt, unsubtle terms. And that's appropriate. I don't need to see the tasteful, careful version of this story. From the very start, Parker focuses on the small details, the daily indignations, the open horror of the way blacks are treated, and that accumulation of detail is what eventually turns Turner into a terrifying figure who threatens the brutal status quo. When he's very young, Nat is paid special attention by Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), who teaches him to read. The film is careful not to let the white characters off the hook for good intentions or for being "less racist," as in an early moment when Elizabeth first brings Nat into the family library. As he reaches out for a book, she stops him. "Those books are for white people," she tells him. "Your kind can't understand them." Instead, she uses The Bible to instruct him, and that leads Nat to become a preacher to the other slaves on the Turner estate.
When he reaches adulthood, the Turner family finds itself facing economic hardships, as does most of the county they live in. There's a growing unease among the slave population because of the even harsher conditions they're forced to endure, and a local reverend (Mark Boone Junior) has the idea to send Nat around to other plantations to use the Gospel as a way of calming any ideas of revolution. At first, Nat does as he's told, and why not? It's the only life he knows, and there's at least the illusion on the Turner estate that he's treated well. After all, he's allowed to marry, and once his preaching starts to bring in money, he's not used for hard physical labor anymore. But the more Nat sees the way other slaves are treated, the harder it becomes for him to tell people to simply accept their lot in life. The way the film establishes the use of religious text as a method of control may well be the most genuinely dangerous idea in it, and it's canny writing by Parker. Eventually, Nat begins to realize that for every line in the book that can be used to justify slavery and obedience, there is another line that urges people to throw off their shackles, and the insidious word game of it all becomes too much for him to bear.
Much will be made of the violence in certain sequences, but this really isn't a film about the revolt itself so much as the conditions that led Nat to see revolt as the only possible moral option. I am ashamed to say that when I was young and in school, Nat Turner was presented to us as a murderer, someone whose actions were wrong no matter what the justification. It probably didn't help that I lived in Tennessee when I first learned about Nat Turner. Even now, you're going to see people of a certain generational mindset who refuse to acknowledge the morality of what Turner did. Yes… he and his companions killed people in their homes, in their beds, in the middle of the night. But when there is a system that is so monstrously immoral in place, and when the mere act of meeting a white person's eyes was enough to get someone struck or even killed, then violence wasn't just an option… it was an imperative.
The Birth of a Nation is not a flawless film. Parker has been acting for a while now, and he's directed a few shorts, but sustaining a feature is a particular skill set, and there are some places where the film feels a bit soft or where it could have used another polish on a script level. But taken as a whole, it is carefully observed, and Parker's supported well by his technical collaborators. I respect the fact that the film is a blunt instrument, and unlike many films about slavery which feel designed to prick the conscience of the white mainstream, this film doesn't give a shit whether you feel bad about things or not. It's not looking to let you off the hook or give you a character to point at where you can say, "See? I'm like them! I'm one of the good ones!" This film puts Nat Turner and his moral journey dead center, and it asks you to take an unflinching look at how an inhuman system broke the human beings trapped in it. Much has been written today about the record-breaking price Fox Searchlight paid to acquire the film, and I've heard many cynical comments about how Searchlight is only doing this in response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy this year. Nonsense. The Birth of a Nation is a vibrant, furious piece of work, and the fact that it seems extra-relevant right now should be seen as a failure of our culture, not as a calculated move by Nate Parker or his collaborators.
The Birth of a Nation should be in theaters sometime in 2016.