As I noted three years ago upon the release of 12 Years a Slave, it’s surprising how few films have focused on the actual experience of slavery. Many have used it to tell a larger story about the South or the Civil War, but truly exploring what African-Americans went through during that time has largely been left untold on-screen.
That’s why, despite slavery being abolished over 150 years ago, stories about the practice are still necessary. That’s especially true when it comes to the story of Nat Turner, who led a rebellion against white slave owners in 1831. Director/writer/star Nate Parker brings Turner’s story to life in The Birth of a Nation, purposefully reappropriating the title of the 1915 pro-Ku Klux Klan film.
When Nat shows an aptitude toward reading at an early age, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), the mistress of a plantation in Southampton, Virginia, takes him under her wing. Using the Bible as his main text, Nat becomes an effective preacher and a favored hand by Elizabeth's son, Samuel (Armie Hammer), when Samuel becomes overseer of the property.
A comparatively kind slave owner, Samuel is also an alcoholic whose laziness and weak-willed nature lead to multiple bad situations involving Nat and other slaves. Each one emboldens Nat more and more, and spurred on by his interpretation of Bible verses, he decides to try to right the wrongs with a violent insurrection.
Where Parker and his team succeed is setting the scene for the story as a whole. This includes showing the camaraderie between the slaves, the day-to-day toughness of their lives, the offhand brutality they experienced, and more.
Nat’s relationship with his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is also portrayed movingly. They experience fleeting happiness, or as much as could reasonably be expected, but an attack on Cherry is the final straw for Nat. Given all that he and others went through, Nat’s anger is entirely understandable and justified.
But after doing such a great job setting up the reasons behind the rebellion, Parker somehow gives short shrift to the actual execution of it. True, the rebellion itself only lasted 48 hours, but Parker seems to take multiple narrative shortcuts during and after the fighting.
Parker also falls prey to standard revenge movie tropes, inserting clichéd scenes into a film that deserves much more nuance. The actors deserve much praise for their performances, but Parker, making his directorial debut, doesn’t seem to trust them to do their jobs, pushing harder than he needs to when a soft touch would have done the job more effectively.
While it's well-done and well-acted for the most part, The Birth of a Nation ultimately doesn’t feel as essential as 12 Years a Slave or Django Unchained, films that have covered the same topic in more dynamic ways. It’s far from a bad movie, but it’s also not an Oscar-worthy one.