In August of 1831, an ever-increasing collection of enslaved black men, led by Nat Turner, rebelled against the slaveholders who purported to own them. They raged through Southampton County, Virginia, killing nearly 65 men, women, and children (accounts of the total number of people killed vary) until the rebellion was finally quashed. The rebels were either killed at that final battle in the Belmont Plantation, or they were executed in the coming days and months as they were captured. Turner managed to elude his pursuers for two months, but was finally captured and executed that November. Turner himself was a fascinating character, a deeply religious man with an uncommon amount of education, owned by the Turner family who were, for whatever its worth, known to be a more kindly brand of slaveowners, allowing Turner to pursue preaching to his fellow slaves and sometimes even to white people. Turner was alleged to be prone to prophetic visions and felt that his destiny lay in the freedom of black people from slavery.
Turner and the slave revolt that he fostered is a wholly fascinating piece of American history, a bloody, controversial, and riveting sequence of events that would lead to harsher slave laws, but also lead to further uprisings and light the fires of revolt throughout American blacks — and whites as well. It’s also a piece of history that is oddly absent from popular culture — it features prominently in an episode of the 1977 series, ‘Roots’, but not much else. It is a story deserving of adaptation, a legacy that is worthy of a great retelling.
Unfortunately, Nate Parker’s passion project about Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation, is not that retelling. Parker gave his everything to this film, fighting for funding, writing (along with friend Jean McGianni Celestin), directing, producing and starring in it, and that in and of itself is impressive. He refused to relent in creating his dream project, and it’s remarkable that a black man in Hollywood, a relative unknown, was able to assemble the money and talent needed for such a project. It took Sundance by storm this year, securing the largest financing deal in the festival’s history ($17.6 million from Fox Searchlight). Everything about its evolution is a remarkable tale in and of itself.
The film delves deeply into Turner’s history, beginning with him being raised as a small child on a Virginia plantation, his education and hard labors, being used by his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer, in a tortuous and tumultuous performance) as a moneymaker — he’s effectively pimped out to other plantations to preach to their slaves in an effort to subdue them. Eventually, the brutal realities of slavery become too much, and Turner begins to sow the seeds of rebellion among his close friends, finally exploding into a full-blown revolt. While there are a couple of peculiar and in some cases frustrating deviations from the true story, the film hews relatively closely to the true events.
The problem is, quite simply, that it’s not a great film. Make no mistake — The Birth of a Nation is by no means a bad film. But it’s a subject that needs to be a great film. It’s not. The performances are mostly good, particularly Hammer as Samuel Turner and Aja Naomi King as Cherry, Nat’s wife (more on this later). Parker himself is fine as Turner, turning in a performance that doesn’t flinch away from showing his subservience to his masters, even in the face of their terribleness, until it all becomes too much. However, there’s so much focus on Turner that there’s ultimately little for the supporting cast to do. Gabrielle Union is in the film for a couple of minutes and barely speaks, doing little more than getting married and, later, getting raped (more on this later as well). The focus is purely on Turner, and that would have been OK, except that Parker is good, but not great. His directorial decisions along those lines make this often uncomfortable — long, intense close-ups of Parker’s face are frequent but also unneeded, feeling like an effort at unnecessarily manufacturing drama.
The bigger problem is that the film is slow. That’s not a criticism of slow-building films — there are plenty of slow-burners that work wondrously. But The Birth of a Nation has serious pacing problems, grinding itself to a halt in its efforts to create dramatic tension. It does an interesting job of contrasting the brutalities of slavery with the joyousness that people can find in even the most harsh of conditions, but it never quite finds its footing, so the narrative plods along, filling space until something good comes along — be it a depiction of a cruel master at a neighboring plantation or a wonderfully filmed wedding of one of Nat’s friends — and then resuming its stultifying pace. The film is broken up even more with excessive, heavy-handed symbolism via Turner’s visions. While it is true that Turner was prone to prophecy and visions, their depiction in the film are utterly lacking in subtlety or nuance. That’s often a problem with the film in general — Parker eschews subtlety in favor of a brute force approach, going for the body blows, overwhelming us with melodrama and taking historical license, rather than letting the story tell itself. He’s forcing us to see not the life of Nat Turner, but rather The Life of Nat Turner, Brought You You By Nate Parker.
Parker also muddled with history too much, often unpleasantly so. The film has a recurring antagonist in slave hunter Raymond Cobb (solidly portrayed with grim unpleasantness by Jackie Earle Haley), but Parker also uses him too much as a boogeyman, making him responsible for the disappearance of his father as well as the later rape of his wife, both of which are events that have no historical basis. Cobb also leads the white militia that fights Turner’s uprising at Belmont, making him just too omnipresent and coincidental. Slavery is awful enough, there is no need for there to be a central villain representing all of slavery’s ills.
But more infuriating is Parker and Celestin’s need to write not one, but two rapes into the story as motivations for Turner’s actions. The rape of Esther, played by Gabrielle Union, is another event central to the eventual rebellion, and is also created for dramatic license. It’s as if to say that Turner would have been fine with all this slavery and torture, but rape was the tipping point. It’s a lazy and ultimately clumsy plot point that detracts from the true and engaging story of Nat Turner. If the rape of black women by white men — a terrible and all-too-common occurrence — had been referred to regularly and honestly, it would have been one thing. That is a story that needs to and should be told, not as a plot point but as its own piece of the story of American slavery. But instead, it’s held in reserve, an ace card up the directorial sleeve, as a way to further outrage the protagonist and the audience, taking away any sense of agency from these women and using them as little more than props. Even the film’s ending takes too much liberty — instead of literally being found hiding in a ditch, Turner simply walks, back straight and gaze steady, into a white plantation, where he is subdued and arrested.
Nat Turner is, quite frankly, an American hero, a marvel of American history, and an icon of Black suffering and rebellion who deserves more attention than he gets. Nate Parker, despite the best of intentions, ultimately fails to give Turner the biopic that he deserves, crossing the line from passion project until it ultimately becomes a vanity project, one where the creator’s reach far exceeds his grasp. Too often, The Birth of a Nation feels like it’s checking boxes instead of telling his story. Is this a bad film? No, it’s not. But Nat Turner, and all those whose lives are forever changed by him, deserves better.