In Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” many an incident between slaves and their white captors in early 1800s America feels like the first ripple leading to the tsunami of racial tension washing up today. A black man walking home innocuously who is greeted with distrust and violence from roving vigilantes recalls the charged interactions between minorities and police officers. The employment of selective Bible quotes to reinforce racial hierarchies draws attention to how religious groups often impede, rather than promote, equity and justice. Black women are commoditized and then made the targets of sexual violence – well, nothing much has changed there.
Parker’s message becomes apparent quite quickly: it’s a movie about Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, but it’s ~really~ about contentious race relations in 2016. Historicizing the present is, on its face, certainly nothing worthy of complaint; plenty of great films have used this technique to stirring effect. But “The Birth of a Nation” falters because in the relentless focus on contemporary concerns, Parker loses sight of what makes slavery so horrible.
By favoring present-day relevance over historical trauma, Parker denies us a full glimpse at the true terrors of slavery. It’s a pure spectacle, one that primarily exists to provide moments that propel Nat Turner’s ultimate transformation from plantation pastor to rebellious renegade. Parker’s parade of images meant to illustrate the brutality of the system do a disservice to the atrocity of slavery by avoiding anything that causes pain.
His sanitized glimpses at the violence include cutaways during forced teeth extraction, a painless whipping against the pole and an implied rape. Parker is so concerned about locating the pulse of “The Birth of a Nation” in modern times that he winds up taking a gallingly non-confrontational attitude about the subject of slavery. Placing his agenda on a pedestal over their pain rings both cheap and hollow.
Parker’s devaluation of the slave experience ultimately come back to haunt the film later on. His script, co-written with Jean McGianni Celestin, spends far too long dwelling in expository, cradle-to-grave biopic territory. When Parker’s Nat Turner eventually begins steeling his resolve to fight back against his captors, the vengeance feels unearned. Fighting cartoonish racists is something we’ve seen before. Battling a system of racism – the buzzwords of the current movement – is something a little more novel, yet “The Birth of a Nation” cannot reach this plateau since it fails to truly repudiate the actual barbarism of slavery.
It does seem almost as if Parker realizes he falls short of his lofty goals of drawing a long throughline across centuries of racial animus; as the film grinds on, it comes to rely on more standard tools of epic filmmaking. He hits us with dramatic swells of stirring strings, emphatic impressionistic montage and grandiloquent addresses. But none of these flourishes can correct the issues caused by Parker handling slavery with kid gloves. “The Birth of a Nation” cannot be a good movie about America’s racial history because it cares so little about actually showing that history on its own terms. Slavery is not a plot point. Slavery is the point, and Parker misses it. C /