It’s actually unfortunate that The Birth Of A Nation was received with so much enthusiasm when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016. Eight months before its intended release date, the hype machine embraced Nate Parker’s biopic as an Oscar front-runner. Its sympathetic take on American slave-revolt leader Nat Turner was touted as the triumphant fix to the Academy Awards’ diversity problem. And the film was hailed as a monumental vindication for Parker, who spent seven years developing and independently funding his directorial debut before selling it to Fox Searchlight for more than $17 million.
But all the early buzz backfired when the media re-discovered Parker’s college rape accusation, the harassment suit that followed, and the plaintiff’s eventual suicide. Most of this information about Parker’s past was readily available before he had a Sundance hit, when he was an actor in films like Beyond the Lights and Non-Stop. But until his new narrative was cemented — a Hollywood happy-ending story about a visionary auteur leading the charge against #OscarsSoWhite — the details apparently weren’t relevant to the public. It took a huge success to turn Parker into a villain.
The subsequent cultural conversation has led in many directions, and asks questions about how much we’re willing to overlook for the sake of important art, how misunderstood sexual assault and consent still are, and what we ask of the poster child for Hollywood’s diversity movement. But what’s been left unanswered since Sundance is whether Birth Of A Nation actually lives up to the initial hype. Separated from all the hyperbole and rhetoric, Parker’s film looks much smaller than the controversies it’s spawned. It’s a by-the-books historical prestige drama, with a terrific central performance weighed down by underdeveloped themes and overplayed symbolism. This is history as the Oscars likes it: solemn, full of easy-to-digest outrage, and so emphatic that it loses out on being artful.
Parker stars as Virginia plantation slave Nat Turner, whose 1831 revolt became the bloodiest in American history. Parker, who also co-wrote the script with his college friend and fellow assault case defendant Jean Celestin, opens with Turner as a privileged child who enjoys a special friendship with his master’s son Sam, and gets reading lessons from Sam’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). Brought up on the Bible, protected from the worst abuses of slavery, and coached by his fearful mother (Aunjanue Ellis), Turner becomes canny enough to stay deferential around whites. Eventually, Turner falls in love with a traumatized woman named Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King), and starts a family of his own. He also becomes a preacher, and Sam hires him out to local plantations to deliver sermons on obedience and gratitude to other groups of slaves. But while Nat has inevitably seen severe horrors, he’s also been protected by Sam’s affability and Sam’s father’s apathy. Traveling to other households exposes Nat to new atrocities that gradually strengthen his convictions and lead him toward rebellion.
Birth Of A Nation is built around Parker’s tremendous performance: his careful navigation of his household’s specific racial boundaries, the love and joy that marks his personal life, and his gradual awakening to the larger realities of the slave existence. The film is at its most powerful when it’s relying primarily on Parker’s charisma and presence. He doesn’t stint on the graphic physical and emotional agonies of slavery, on the grotesque details of physical abuse, merciless labor, and sanctioned rape, torture, and murder. But just as 12 Years A Slave funneled the horror of plantation life through one specific perspective, Birth is most affecting when it’s dealing with Turner specifically, instead of the parade of historical atrocity around him. The exhausting degradation of American slavery has been covered in detail many times. What makes it fresh and real again is the way Turner experiences it, as a growing awareness of his own helplessness, and a growing conviction that he can’t bear it.
But the film spends more time and energy on shaking Turner, and the audience through him, than on understanding who he is. Birth captures the significant events in his life, and heavily underlines how they connect into a straight path to revolt. But the things he sees seem horrible enough to raise any man to violence, even at the risk of death. Birth Of A Nation drops the opportunity to address what in Turner’s makeup made him distinctive, and what made him rise up when so many didn’t.
In particular, Parker never fully explores the nature of Turner’s religious convictions. The real-life figure was an undisputed believer; the cinematic version is much less defined. It’s never clear whether Parker’s version of Turner is profoundly devout, or just gratefully embracing the way his Biblical knowledge gains him special respect, privilege, and utility. He never visibly grapples with his faith, but he never visibly feels it, either.
What he does feel is pain and humiliation, which Parker brings to the audience as forcefully and bluntly as possible. A punishingly pushy score brings every emotion crashing home. Close-ups of Parker’s face emphasize Turner’s suffering, and the symbolism of his endurance. The film’s reliance on exasperatingly literal dialogue and images repeatedly gets in the way of honest emotion, or even just honest action. And in place of a subtle or nuanced exploration of Turner’s character, Parker builds an opaque mythology around him, giving him mysterious visions (taken from Turner’s own life, but not meaningfully illuminated) and an epic destiny promised by a mysterious shaman. Parker builds Turner’s story into a passion play that’s more about his Christ-like suffering and martyring than about his identity. Birth Of A Nation is powerful and effective, but it’s spectacle that can’t humanize or define its subject.
Much like 12 Years A Slave before it, Birth Of A Nation is a shattering experience. The technical flaws get in the way — apart from Sam, the cast around Turner tends to be thinly realized, and the way they frequently disappear from the story suggests either aggressive editing or disinterested writing. But the characters’ pain and fear still come through clearly enough to turn the film into a litany of effectively staged, emotionally powerful horror. It’s just a frustratingly familiar and shallow horror, the kind seen in so many previous tragic-but-tasteful prestige tragedy-dramas. Birth Of A Nation was hailed as an Oscar front-runner for a number of reasons: because the story behind it initially seemed so triumphant. Because it hurts to watch, and that pain has gravitas. And because it’s telling the kind of story we need to see more often on screen, the kind of black-centric, racially charged, socially significant historical story that’s been missing from American film screens for too long. But it’s not enough to acknowledge that film is doing moviegoers a service in telling a story they may not find familiar. It also has to be acknowledged that it tells it in a wearyingly familiar, conventional way.