Have you ever watched a film that you find endlessly fascinating on a thematic level but that for some reason doesn’t fully connect on a movie level? If so, you’re familiar with the conundrum that I am regarding The Birth of a Nation. Nate Parker‘s directorial debut is one of conviction and succeeds on many levels, but after sitting with the film, and if I’m being honest with myself, after leaving the theater, I am torn about just how much of an impact that movie has.
I have spent about two weeks pondering the film and my thoughts have generally consumed by how Nate positioned religion and faith with regards to not just Nat Turner, but Black Americans in general, with The Birth of a Nation. In the opening moments, we see young Nat Turner introduced to some tribal leaders, and throughout the film we see him in positions of using his faith and being surrounded by it. This part of history is tough for many Black people, particularly those of us who are younger, and know that religion was used as a tool of colonization. We see it in the nice white woman who doesn’t allow Nat to read any books other than the Bible. So while it was great he wasn’t punished for knowing how to read (something most slaves would be whipped for) the only thing he had
The problem, I think, for The Birth of a Nation is it’s truly about a character and a moment and yet all I can do is rave about the themes that have nothing really to do with the plot or the story. The only moments of the movie I can vividly recall that are plot based are when Nat is by the beside of his badly beaten wife and maybe one or two other shots. I am certainly happy to engage with a film’s themes in a strong way, but it would also be nice if that filmmaking prowess would extend to the actual narrative. For all of the movie’s laser focus on Nat, and Parker’s admittedly great performance, the side characters in the film suffer for it.
Particularly Armie Hammer‘s plantation owner whose general aimlessness and adroitness in the narrative (the movie doesn’t know whether to commit to the “nice slave owner” or drunk or fuck up tag) really brings down the film because of how close in proximity he is to Nat’s story. The movie is very reliant (thank God) on our understanding of slavery as a terrible thing with ramifications that still are felt today, but it at times feels like our main characters operate outside of that world. This is weird given that the plantation isn’t doing that well, how are these people living so nicely despite what would have made any white slave owner furious? Nat’s preaching tour couldn’t have brought in that much money (although it does provide the movie’s most thrilling scene). Probably not good form of me to judge a movie on what I wish had happened, but I do think The Birth of a Nation has a joy in despair balance problem that makes Nat’s decision to rebel feel like it came too quickly.
Even though I have said all of the above, I do still believe that The Birth of a Nation is a vital film and a necessary watch. But the extent to with which it will impact you will most certainly vary.