The Birth of a Nation online movie review - Highly Effective Depiction of Racist Slave Owners is Undermined by Saintly Portrait of Rebellion Leader
Nate Parker's "Birth of a Nation" is ironically named after D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and depicted blacks as racially inferior.
In Parker's view, the real "birth" of America began with the Nat Turner slave rebellion which took place in Southampton County, Virginia, thirty years before the advent of the Civil War.
Parker employs melodrama to spin his tale in, as Wikipedia defines it, a "typically sensational" manner "and designed to appeal strongly to the emotions," taking "precedence over detailed characterization." While melodrama is usually spoken of pejoratively, a good melodramatist will always shine if he at least is able to serve up a singular worthy antagonist or assortment of delectable bad guys. Within these parameters I must conclude that Parker is a writer not without talent. Indeed, his crafty depiction of the cruelties of the institution of slavery is what saves the film from morphing into a completely hopeless exercise in baseless agitprop.
Parker's break into the Second Act occurs after the unusually precocious child Nat Turner learns to read the Bible to the surprise of all the racist whites on the plantation who believe blacks are incapable of reading at all. As a grownup, Nat Turner's slave owner, Samuel Turner, is convinced by his slovenly preacher that he can get out of debt by "renting out" Nat to other slave owners and have him preach the "good word" to disaffected blacks to keep them docile.
Samuel initially proves to be relatively benign in comparison to some of the other slave owners on the neighboring plantations, and while Nat is on "tour," he gets to see just how vile these batch of racists really are. Parker pulls out all the stops in both dialogue and characterization as he chronicles just how sinister, debilitating and humiliating (not to mention life-threatening) the situation was for black people under the yoke of slavery.
Patrick H. Breen writing in Deadline Hollywood notes "perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie, when Nat Turner was hit simply for returning to a white child a doll she dropped, one can see all the small acts of human kindness that have so often been repaid with a coldhearted brutality." And there's another incredibly powerful scene involving two slaves who are chained while on a hunger strike, one who gets his teeth knocked out as punishment, by a cruel owner and his overseer using a pick and hammer!
There are other powerful scenes of blacks being violated, including the rape of Nat's wife and also another woman (the wife of Nat's friend) who's brought into Samuel Turner's home and brutally raped after a late night dinner amongst neighboring slave owners. Parker's tale is also educational, as he reminds us that slaves had to have the proper papers on them to go anywhere (akin to modern day identity cards) and forgetting to carry them, could result in completely deleterious consequences (even carrying the papers did not guarantee that the slaves would not be assaulted or killed).
Everything goes wrong, however, when Parker decides to cast Nat Turner as a veritable saint. Instead of the both scary and charismatic preacher, Parker turns Nat basically into a family man. For Parker, Nat's motive for starting the rebellion is the rape of his wife (an event that never occurred historically and is designed to make us have more sympathy for him). While Nat's cause was just, the way he and his fellow slaves went about the rebellion suggests that they weren't any better than the racists who had oppressed them. Notably, history tells us that Nat's men not only killed Joseph Travis (his owner), his wife and 9 year old son but they also went back and killed an infant sleeping in a cradle and then dumped the body in a fireplace. Other innocents, women and children, were killed. Parker sanitizes the rebellion by not depicting any real brutality amongst the rebellious slaves. Of course he does this because he doesn't want to suggest that Nat perhaps wasn't the complete victim he would like us to believe.
It also would have been troubling to depict Nat's owner as a decent man. But according to Nat Turner before he was put to the gallows, that's actually what he was. Here Parker first suggests that Samuel Turner wasn't as bad as his neighboring slave owners?but once he gets wind that Nat baptizes a white man, Parker turns him into someone worthy of having an ax chopped into his chest?he depicts Samuel Turner as having no guilt feelings about relentlessly whipping Nat, leaving him as a bloody pulp, tied for hours on a fence.
Parker's belief that there were hundreds of victims due to reprisals against blacks as a result of the rebellion, is not borne out by the facts, at least in Southampton County. According to Patrick H. Breen, author of The Land Shall Be Deluged In Blood: A New History Of The Nat Turner Revolt, "In Southampton, slaves were the most valuable form of property and tax records reveal that whites killed roughly three dozen slaves as the revolt was put down? Southampton's slaveholders? recognizing the danger that enraged whites posed to their wealth?did everything that they could to stop the indiscriminate killings."
Parker is unable to bring any nuance to Nat Turner's character, instead interpreting the rebellion as a noble act of revenge. Instead of viewing the rebellion for what it was?a tragedy?he appears to revel in the violence and suggests that the victims of slavery were all noble (this coming from a man who's been quoted as saying he would never play a gay character because he wants to "preserve the black man").
By failing to eschew melodrama, Parker delivers his points with a sledgehammer and for the most part is incapable of bringing any hint of subtlety to a seminal chapter in American history.