The Birth of a Nation starts with a crackerjack idea for a historical epic: the story of Nat Turner, the rebel slave, and his 1831 uprising in Southampton County, Va. If you liked the brutal realism of 12 Years a Slave and the slaveowners-get-theirs catharsis of Django Unchained, Turner’s famous story promises both experiences for the price of one. And at first the promise seemed fulfilled: Produced and directed and co-written and headlined by Nate Parker, a young African-American actor who had nothing like this on his résumé, Birth earned standing ovations at Cannes, got purchased for a ridiculous $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight, and looked poised to ride a wave of adulation (plus a little “Take that, Trump” sentiment) to the Oscars.
But then came the intersectionality buzzsaw. Along with a wrestling teammate, Parker had been accused of sexual assault in 1999, while he was a sophomore at Penn State. His teammate was convicted, he was acquitted; their (white) accuser accused them of inciting racial harassment against her on campus; years later, in 2012, she killed herself. On the promotional trail, Parker did not handle the revival of this story particularly gracefully, and people began to point out unsettling resonances in the film itself — particularly the (invented, ahistorical) rape of Turner’s wife and the broader use of sexual violence as a spur to the character’s rebellion.
Amid all this social-justice controversy, the reviews turned lukewarm. There was more talk about the movie’s various historical inaccuracies, some angry thinkpieces accusing Parker of making a male revenge fantasy that condescends to African-American women, and a general sorrowful take that The Birth of a Nation just wasn’t the movie that those Cannes ovations had led people to expect.
As a critic of the social-justice wars’ effect on criticism — and as a defender, just last issue, of Mel Gibson’s artistic talent — I was hoping to report that Birth is better than its uncomfortable reception, that its creator’s personal sins are obscuring what those initial audiences saw. (That Gibson had counseled Parker during the making of the movie, and that a few critics had compared Birth to Braveheart, made me particularly hopeful that it might rise above its director’s demons.)
But no: The Cannes audience was wrong, and the wan reception is mostly justified. The Birth of a Nation has the raw material of a great American epic, but the execution is disappointingly ham-handed, and the main character — one of the most fascinating of the entire slave era — never comes fully into focus.
The structure of the film is sound enough: We meet Nat first as a boy, playing happily with Samuel, his master’s son, and having his talents noticed by Samuel’s mother (Penelope Ann Miller), who fatefully gives him a Bible and teaches him to read. But then the master of the house dies, and it’s decreed that Nat be sent back out to pick cotton, his gifts set aside in favor of a field hand’s lot.
Flash-forward to adulthood: Samuel, now played by Armie Hammer, is a decent but dissolute master of a failing plantation, while Nat has taken up a role as preacher to the slaves. Again his talent is noticed, this time by the local minister, who recommends that Nat be rented out to preach to other mistreated slaves, to keep them quiescent under their masters’ cruel rule. Needing money, Samuel agrees, and Nat goes forth to preach and — more important — to witness the crimes that will inspire him to rebellion.
Unfortunately the movie isn’t content just to show us a devout man’s gradual radicalization; it feels the need to pivot to typical revenge-drama motivations as well. The real Turner was a zealot and a mystic, an African-American John Brown, something far stranger and more fearsome than Tarantino’s Django or any other cinematic revenger. But Parker’s performance is trapped betwixt and between: The movie grants him piety and bloody visions, but the script keeps swinging back to Ordinary Man Pushed Too Far tropes, with the rapes of his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and a little later his friend’s wife, Esther (Gabrielle Union), as the crucial moments in a “Charles Bronson in magnolias and moonlight” arc.
All of this leaves the story overly cluttered, so that by the time we arrive at the final, final turning point — Nat decides to baptize a white man, some sort of outcast, which finally brings his master’s wrath upon him — it feels rushed and confusing and lacks the theological weight that it should bear.
And weight is what the movie lacks across the board. Parker has a painterly eye at times, but too often his imagery veers kitschward: Some of the religious visions feel like The Passion of the Christ by way of Thomas Kinkade. The musical cues are potent but obvious: “Swing Low” for the cotton fields, “Strange Fruit” for a hanging. The dialogue is often flat and modern-sounding; the script desperately needed a working-over in the successful faux-antique style of 12 Years a Slave. And for a movie about a radical black preacher, the sermons in The Birth of a Nation are mostly perfunctory, and even the fieriest moments get cut off before they can reach a real King James–style climax.
Finally, the women are, as those thinkpieces suggested, mostly props, about as fully realized as Liam Neeson’s family in the Taken movies. On this point, and on the larger question of whether Parker’s movie is artful enough to make the viewer forget about his sins, the social-justice police turned out to be decent film critics after all.