The Birth of a Nation is a film willing attention on itself. To date, a lot of its attention has been unwanted, but it’s not entirely certain that it deserves the kind of attention it does crave. The title is borrowed in an attempt to reclaim it from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic. Griffith’s film is rightly revered as a cinematic cornerstone, but it’s also inescapably racist, telling the fictionalised tale of the Ku Klux Klan seeing off the threat of newly-freed black slaves in the former Confederacy. Writer/director/star Nate Parker clearly intends to right a few wrongs, but only ends up writing a narrative that poses few challenges beyond the visceral surface.
The Birth of a Nation 2016 is based around a true event in 1831, when Nat Turner (Parker) led a band of fellow slaves on a failed rebellion in Virginia that ended in the deaths of 60 white slaveowners and all the rebelling slaves (Turner evaded capture for two months before being arrested and executed). Parker’s film has a wide reach, telling Turner’s life story from youth to the rebellion. Taking note of the young Nat’s (Tony Espinoza) friendship with her own son, slaveowner’s wife Mrs. Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) takes the boy in with the aim of educating him to become a preacher. The early part of the film charts Turner’s development in a series of moments that fit into the biopic mould all too readily. From his father being killed to his first moment reading the Bible before a church congregation, the film ticks boxes that we’ve seen many times before. It’s an episodic life.
The film is painted mostly in broad strokes. The early scenes show off visual and design choices of prestige and sombreness, and the kind of motifs that get awards attention. As shot by Elliot Davis, the Southern dawns are gunmetal blue, and the days blaze in crisp sunshine. Handsome it may be, but the film comes with too much polish, lacking its own distinctive beauty or imagery (a couple of bloody moments aside) that could contrast with the eventual onscreen violence. Indeed, comparing the violence here to a smarter depiction of similar events (The most obvious and best example is 12 Years A Slave) shows the violence in The Birth of a Nation to be used as opportune moments of catharsis in the narrative rather than a natural extension of the story. Here, the indignities inflicted on the slaves feel less like a constant threat than a handful of markers on Turner’s road to rebellion. One scene late in the film sees Turner get whipped with arms outstretched. By now, friends and family have died, and his wife (Aja Naomi King) has been raped. In case we didn’t get the meaning of all this, a light from behind glows while the whip lashes our hero. As he splutters with the force, we half-expect him to ask his father above to forgive his aggressors for they know not what they do. It’s the culminating moment of an overblown Jesus allegory-cum-origin tale. A number of similar images (a child playing with a noose, a solar eclipse) come and go with all the subtlety of a Klansman in Harlem.
All this is to say that Turner is not afforded the rounded treatment such a controversial figure deserves. The film makes a great deal of Turner’s role as a preacher, but his faith and his violent rebellion never seem to come to conflict in his mind. He keeps to his duties for his master (His childhood friend, grown up to become Armie Hammer) whilst witnessing the horrors of slavery. In Parker’s hands as writer, director and actor, Turner becomes a saviour in a narrative in which no-one is immediately rescued. The supporting cast bring their best to bear on the material, but there’s little outside the bloodshed that doesn’t fit into a cookiecutter prestige template. The hero is noble beyond belief, the dramatic moments come in slo-mo and it’s all accompanied by mournful choirs and strings, or by obvious song choices like ‘Strange Fruit’. It’s a biopic posing as something more worthy and timely. Context can only cover up so many basic textual issues.
The cynical amongst us could interpret this as an exercise in PR, whether for Turner or for Parker. More definitively, The Birth of a Nation adds a layer of Hollywood sheen to events that would benefit from a grittier and more critical approach. Counteracting Griffith’s original racism is tricky when there isn’t any filmmaking ambition to back up the endeavour. It may seem reductive to call it an American Braveheart (and yes, that is pejorative), but the combination of violence, gloss and a general lack of introspection mean that shoe can’t help but fit.