The Birth of a Nation is mucked up in controversy and I don’t want to get that into it in this review, but it’s important to note that the film is marketed as a true story, but the embellishments (often at the expense of women) and outright fabrications undermine its value.
From the beginning of the film I was generally unimpressed. The scenes felt cold and detached — shots would cut immediately as lines ended at several points in the establishing scenes of young Nat (Tony Espinosa) leaving no time for the gravity of the action to reach its true extent. Make me care! Parker expects the audience to connect to Turner on the basis of being a “chosen one”, which I think is a pretty big cop-out.
Young Nat is a passive object, passed from his father’s hands to his mother’s, taken by the patronizing lady of the house, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), before being placed into cotton fields, only to cut to him as an adult (Nate Parker) being plucked up from his imposed position /again.
The cinematography, at least in the beginning, wasn’t really that special. Certain images stuck out as the film continued — bleeding crops, lynching motifs, and Christ imagery among the more effective and prominent.
One of the aspects which I think stuck out the most for me in this first portion is the depiction of the relationship between slaveowners and slaves. Elizabeth is a gross human being. She has empathy, kindness, and generosity, all which have an abrupt, clear, and unmovable limit based in race, which is disturbingly kind of what I assume most genteel Southern women are still like today.
Elizabeth’s reaction to what she knows is unjust is to hide behind her low status as a woman, while her son Samuel (Armie Hammer) drinks away his white guilt, rarely seen without a bottle as the film progresses. A woman who could have had power as a widow is reduced to a slobbering mess (as this review goes on you might find that Parker doesn’t really write substantive roles for women)
The entire Turner plantation is emblematic of the Antebellum South. Its verdant trees are contrasted by dialogue indicating a long drought. Elizabeth’s warmth quickly turns to coldness. A pristine home is maintained by people who are treated like animals. A scene in which Nat replasters a broken part of a support beam on the manor is the crux of the statement — this world is rotting, this world is being held up by enslavement, this world is a thin veneer hiding an ugly underside. In a scene is which Nat preaches at a more brutal plantation, this veneer is stripped away — the wood of this home is dark and unpainted, and the constant buzzing of insects creates a sense of decay.
The film depicts two sexual assaults, and it’s the second which drew controversy. The first rape depicted in the film showcased the extreme violence in such encounters, but even with the more developed Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King in a stand-out performance) it sort of just happens, makes her man angry, and leaves the victim with nothing. Period. For nearly the rest of the film, although realistically she never really had any agency to begin with compared to her male counterparts who found action even within the confines of slavery.
The second instance was fabricated for dramatic effect — in its defence it’s something that probably happened routinely, but on the other hand it only served to further a man’s plot arc at the expense of a woman’s; Esther (Union) fading into the background.
The film frames its plot as inciting the birth of a nation (in this case the Civil War) and in communicating that message at least, it succeeded in framing the rebellion as the inciting incident to the war which would emancipate Black Americans. Women are seen hanging following the rebellion, but are absent from the dialogue while it was taking place. It may be the birth of a nation, but Parker paints it as a man’s nation. Overall, I’d give it a C — an entertaining piece of film, but just too many reasons to feel icky watching it. I don’t think it passed the Bechdel test.
The Birth of a Nation is airing at the Oxford Theatre on Quinpool Road.