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The Birth of a Nation: Opinions by Cameron Wolff
October 14, 2016
Following a year that raised important questions about the place of African-Americans in film and society, The Birth of a Nation may be a more important film than anyone involved in its production ever expected. The African-American population of the United States was put in the spotlight, following the arguments about brutality and racial bias within law enforcement. These actions were met with intense protest that further strained trust between communities and raised questions on modern racism. A more subtle form of discrimination was challenged as well, as filmmakers of color and actors were not recognized at the Oscars. Audiences and critics felt there were performances and films worthy of nomination, which brought up questions of race and the apparent lack of diversity in Hollywood. The Birth of a Nation follows these controversies, which both helps and hinders its effect.
Expectations have been high for Nate Parker’s directorial debut, which received major awards at the Sundance Film Festival. The Birth of a Nation may not solve Hollywood’s diversity problem or directly acknowledge current strained race-relations, but it is a flawed work that will divide viewers and stay with them for days. It isn’t the Oscar-bait film most will expect, but it is an important piece that refuses to be ignored.
The Birth of a Nation tells the story of controversial figure Nat Turner. Turner was an African-American preacher in the South when slavery was a flourishing industry. He was a slave who preached to slaves; a man who used his ability to read to save himself from harm. Turner was not blind to the injustices of the time, however. The film is at its most powerful when Nat leads a slave revolt, a rebellion with the sole objective of murdering as many white men, women, and children as possible. Turner was a complex individual, a feature that the film too often ignores in favor of a one-sided view of its protagonist.
An important part of evaluating the film lies in looking at the film’s unashamedly biased portrayal of Nat Turner. A simple internet search will yield clashing views on the historical figure; these include comparisons to civil rights leaders, religious figures, and modern-day jihadists. Many will find The Birth of a Nation’s depiction watered-down and historically inaccurate, which are both logical complaints, but I personally find it to be a strong point of the film. Hollywood generally avoids filmmaking this divisive, that tackles issues as hot-button and of-the-moment as racial violence. I find it incredibly brave and refreshing that Nate Parker debuts by deciding to take a firm stance on Nat Turner and his importance in American history. Whether or not Parker is right, this is a personal vision, brutal and fueled with bitter, angry passion. Most filmmakers would be too afraid to endeavor on such a project, which makes The Birth of a Nation even more special.
One of the film’s marvels lies in a central performance that brings Parker’s personal take on Nat Turner’s story full circle. Nate Parker plays Turner himself, an ambitious move for a man already directing his own screenplay. Parker ensures that his choice to play the role himself was not an act of pride or arrogance. This is a powerful performance that runs the gamut of emotions. Turner goes from from powerless to powerful, vengeful to forgiving. Parker brilliantly carries out Nat Turner’s personal transformation from used and deceived slave to powerful messiah-like figure of rebellion with incredible grace. It is a performance that refuses to be overlooked. If the Academy doesn’t recognize Parker’s performance, then the system must truly be rigged.
The film will have its fair share of detractors, which can already be seen by a quick glimpse of online reviews. The critic in me wants to point out the painfully slow and almost unengaging first act of the film, or the unimaginatively-shot dialogue scenes, or the occasionally confusing editing. Parker sometimes overreaches: he ends up filling his film with far too much Biblical symbolism, too many conversations that lack subtlety, and ends on a note that ended up feeling heavy-handed. I was able to forgive the film for these apparent flaws. I found myself so rattled by the film, so compelled by its passion and emotion that I allowed its faults to slip my mind and I let myself be pulled into Parker’s opinionated and powerful vision.
The Birth of a Nation is a bloody ode to a flawed man. Despite the copious bloodshed featured in the film, this is a very appreciative view of Nat Turner, portraying him as a saint. There is no questioning his motivations to solve his problems with bloodshed, but Nate Parker seems to firmly believe that violence begets violence. This may not be the message some were hoping for, and this may not be the complex portrayal of a notoriously divisive man that was to be expected this Oscar season. Still, I found myself moved by the passion of Nate Parker’s filmmaking and acting. I can’t imagine someone walking out of this film without being affected in numerous ways, and that experience is hard to find in modern film, race-related or otherwise.