Four stars. Rated R, for violence, cruelty, rape and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.7.16
It’s telling — likely for all the wrong reasons — that the Nat Turner slave rebellion hadn’t yet been dramatized in an American film.
Aside from earning a chapter in the 1977 TV miniseries Roots — which got a few key details wrong — the event has gone unacknowledged by mainstream visual media.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was the darling of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize; without doubt, its arrival is timely. But tapping into the current combustible zeitgeist is ephemeral; relying on that sort of serendipity has consigned many films (and books, and plays) into the basement of forgotten relics.
The question is whether Parker has made a truly good film: an honorable, balanced and historically truthful document that will stand the test of time, and resonate with future viewers. On balance, the answer is yes: This shattering drama falls somewhat short of the bar set by 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, but it’s worthy competition. Thanks to these and other recent entries such as Selma and Fruitville Station, we’re experiencing an alternate — and equally valid — depiction of events which, in some cases, have remained shamefully overlooked.
ALL drama is compelling, particularly when experienced from differing viewpoints. Variety — as ever — is the spice of life.
Granted, Parker’s Birth of a Nation occasionally is guilty of grandiloquent excess. (The angel imagery is a particular overreach, as is his tendency toward unnecessary close-ups.) The indiscriminate butchery fomented by Turner is glossed over; no matter how justified the rage, it’s difficult to condone the slaughter of children (a detail Parker simply disregards).
From a narrative standpoint, I also wish Parker — who, in addition to directing, producing and starring, also co-scripted, with Jean McGianni Celestin — had done a better job of establishing historical context and extenuating circumstances. Why this particular Virginia county, at this particular moment? Indeed, why Turner himself?
Parker does establish a foundation for Turner’s messianic ascension, during a prologue that finds his boyhood self “destined” to lead; that’s certainly as reasonable as the biblical fervor that the historical record accepts as his primary motivation. But viewers lacking a solid foundation in early 19th century American history likely will wish for more background. Passing references are made to the rising abolitionist movement, and a drought that diminishes crop output, but the latter’s impact on the overall economy of Southampton County — as opposed to just the plantation where Turner lives and toils — is left to our imagination.
It therefore could be argued that Parker is guilty of a rigidly narrow focus, in order to best suit his intentions and dramatic sensibilities. But that’s nothing new; filmmakers have followed their personal muses since the dawn of cinema.
And there’s no denying the sweeping grandeur of Parker’s vision, and the expressive intensity of his starring performance. His raw anguish, during one scene that finds Nat trying to comfort his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is palpable. And ferocious. And memorable.
It’s one of many scenes likely to linger, at great length, after the lights come up. Some are horrific, most notably a white landowner’s enraged “solution,” when one of his slaves embarks on a hunger strike.
Cinematographer Elliot Davis’ sweeping vistas of cotton fields, plantation grounds and sun-dappled meadows are equally striking: simultaneously beautiful and, somehow, slightly sinister. We can’t help wondering what bodies might be buried within such fields.
Parker’s symbolic use of insects also is intriguing, from flies that wander unexpectedly into a frame, to the disconcerting shot of a gorgeous butterfly, resting undisturbed on somebody’s shirt, as Davis slowly pulls his camera back against Nina Simone’s bleak rendition of “Strange Fruit.”
We meet Nat as a boy (Tony Espinosa, blessed with an expressive gaze), living with his family on a cotton plantation owned by Benjamin Turner (Danny Vision). Benjamin’s wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) discovers that Nat has a yearning to read; she encourages this — with the reluctant acquiescence of his mother and grandmother (Aunjanue Ellis and Esther Scott) — by teaching him to read from the Bible.
Nat therefore grows up with a preacher’s sensibilities, able to exert a calming religious influence on his fellow slaves. This is appreciated by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), once a boy who casually played alongside Nat, and now — following Benjamin’s death — responsible for the plantation.
Samuel’s character is hard to pin down. At first blush, he seems a compassionate, almost reluctant slave owner: a position he maintains less by choice, and more by local custom. Hammer shades him as a man troubled by the reflexively cruel attitudes of his friends and neighbors; on more than one occasion, Samuel saves Nat from harm.
But Samuel also is weak, prone to drown his anxieties in alcohol; it’s necessary — for the purposes of Parker’s narrative — that Samuel gradually surrender to less honorable behavior. Whether by virtue of unpersuasive scripting, or Parker’s inability (as director) to coax sufficient subtlety from Hammer’s performance, it doesn’t come off. Samuel’s actions, at a critical third-act juncture, feel unwarranted and contrived.
Parker does much better with his handling of the many other characters. Colman Domingo is memorable as Hark, a fellow slave who becomes Nat’s trusted right hand. Domingo’s best moments are silent, when his superficial “yassuh” expression doesn’t quite conceal the quiet rage that smolders behind his eyes. Gabrielle Union is equally strong as Hark’s wife, Esther, whose defining moment — truly shattering — comes when one of Samuel’s neighbors “requests” companionship one night.
Miller is marvelously subtle as Elizabeth, suggesting a rebellious and abolitionist streak that she might exercise more blatantly, were she not a woman. Scott, the pluperfect grandmother, shares a heartbreaking memory of awful times past, while tending to Nat’s injuries at one point.
Mark Boone Jr. raises a smile as the crafty Rev. Wathel, who recognizes the value of Nat’s preaching skills, and suggests that Samuel might earn some outside income by allowing his Bible-quoting sage to visit other farms and plantations, in order to “calm” potentially “uppity” slaves. (A proposal that ultimately backfires, in that it helps spread Nat’s suggestive influence.)
Jackie Earle Haley, finally, is seven shades of monster as the vicious Raymond Cobb, a slave patrol captain who frequently abuses his authority to find and punish runaways. His predatory gaze is the stuff of nightmares.
Despite the grim setting and constant atmosphere of peril, Parker is careful to provide relief via lighter moments. Nat’s growing fondness for Cherry, and the wedding that results, is particularly joyous: a poignant reminder that hope can endure almost anything, even the uncertainly of what the next day, the next moment, might bring. Parker and King are sweet together, and their wedding night is quite touching.
The technical credits are top-notch, with production designer Geoffrey Kirkland depicting the vivid contrast between antebellum splendor and the squalor of deprivation ... and not merely with respect to the slave quarters. A few of Samuel’s less prosperous neighbors exist in an environment of ghastly filth.
Henry Jackman’s orchestral score is understated but always effective, as are the occasional spirituals — “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — that enhance various dramatic moments.
In the short term, Parker’s film is likely to widen the current racial chasm, particularly among viewers who will argue that the nastier consequences of Nat Turner’s revolt have been obscured. In time, though, this Birth of a Nation — Parker deliberately having reclaimed the title from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic, forever polluted by its sycophantic view of the Ku Klux Klan — deserves to be recognized as a righteous attempt at historical course-correction.
And as a compelling film.