The release of Nate Parker’s docudrama The Birth of a Nation is well timed in that there is currently a lot of public discussion about race relations in this country. And no thoughtful discussion can ignore the institutional racism of America’s past. Parker reaches back nearly 200 years to tell the story of Nat Turner, a Virginia slave who in 1831 led a successful two-day slave rebellion. (It was “successful” in that it happened at all; the uprising ended badly, and any fruits of the event would be years in ripening.)
Parker, as well as directing, producing and co-writing Birth, also stars as Nat Turner. The film begins with a lengthy prologue suggesting Turner was a chosen one, destined to be a visionary and a prophet; more prosaically, it establishes that as a child, Turner was taught to read, primarily the Bible.
As an adult, Turner earns extra money for his cash-poor master (Armie Hammer) by preaching to slaves at nearby plantations. In particular, he is tasked to select portions of the Bible that reinforce the slaves’ submission. But the visits to other farms show Turner the scope of slavery, and how other workers are treated even worse than he is, with grotesque physical abuse. But the film makes an effort to relate all manner of pain, including the dissolution of slave families, and the psychic impacts of being treated as property and having no agency or personal freedom.
The film is best when it is a straightforward docudrama. Attempts at lyricism and some of the “visionary” material are more clunky than inspiring. (The less said about the angel the better.) In fairness, it’s easier to depict and make a case for an awakening rooted in anger, rather than religiosity, even if both can manifest in righteous violence.
Birth has some good performances, including Aja Naomi King, as Parker’s wife, and some of the smaller moments really deliver emotionally, be it horror, sweetness or sadness. (Most of these could have stood on their own, without the intrusive and obvious musical score.) It’s an American story that deserves recounting, which occurs here, despite some of Parker’s missteps.