REVIEW: The Birth of a Nation

7 10 2016

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.

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