- The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Nate Parker took on a big task of being largely self-sufficient for his newest film – he’s a scriptwriter, director and the leading man of The Birth of a Nation. He creates a tough hero worth the real Nat Turner but overplays on dreamy sequences that slow the film down in reaching its full potential and leave it unbalanced.
Slavery is a common practice in the world which we enter at the beginning of The Birth of a Nation: masters take control over thousands, often employing cruel methods of “controlling” their behaviour. Nat Turner has witnessed it since he was a boy: in the opening scene, we observe the privileged plantation owners chasing down his father. However, it isn’t always so; the wife of his owner notices that he can read and gives him a place to stay at their home to teach him. This period of his life is brutally interrupted when the master dies; Nat is sent back to a cotton plantation by his son and a childhood friend. Having learnt how to read, proficient in Bible passages, he becomes a preacher for those who share the hardships in the same area. Samuel, the new farm governor, decides to earn extra money by taking Nat around the area to convince other slaves to be obedient under the pretext of “evangelisation”. Disheartened by witnessing the viciously cruel treatment that the others receive from their masters and dispirited by a series of personal tragedies, the main character decides to take serious action against the sadistic behaviour of the privileged.
Religious metaphors heavily overtake the portrayal of the characters. Nat, played by Nate Parker, is prepared to become a hero tirelessly during the course of the story. Every single occurrence of savagery that he witnesses shatters him a little bit more emotionally; he becomes even more traumatised when his family is affected by barbarous treatment. The idea of standing up for him and his fellows comes to him when he’s flogged after an argument in which Bible verses are the weapon in an uneven battle. From then on, we witness the transformation, from the ordinary man to a self-proclaimed leader, with a clear derivative to biblical tropes. Nate Parker’s reflection of a man who led one of the biggest slave insurrections in America is believable and we sympathise with the character as the story progresses. His speeches to other slaves are particularly powerful: we feel that he gives them hope and preaches change.
Another interesting character is the farm owner, Samuel Turner. Armie Hammer depicts him creating an antihero to oppose the protagonist, underlining the necessary distinctions between his natural moral response and what he is “supposed to” do not to be a black sheep among the other wealthy farm owners. Torn between the influences of his mother and the charm of the power he holds, his Samuel is a complicated character that helps to build Nat up, but not to disappear in his shadow. He’s that antagonist who keeps the main character wondering about the righteousness of his own decisions as he looks for his own spiritual answers – before the line is irreversibly crossed.
Visually, the film plays continuously on blood-shedding scenes that invoke the sense of justice with every drop of spilt blood and each torture performed on innocent people. The camera work is pretty straightforward, but the graphic violence shows and tells a lot, helping to understand the character transformation after exposure to such ludicrous maltreat.
There are some moments which could be easily cut out of the film without the serious impact on the plot or characters, however. The visions of angels or prophetic dreams don’t feel really necessary; they don’t contribute to the cinematographic value of the film and tend to skint towards out-of-place pompousness instead. These visions make the film a little too radical and push it away from the message of the fight for equality that was truly intended for this story. Although it is absolutely fair that the religious messages are amplified across the movie, “The Chosen One” evocation tends to roam the wrong paths while trying to provide us with countless symbolism for reassurance of character’s intentions instead of stepping ahead confidently.
The Birth of a Nation is a right film for the right times – with the rise of extremism and sudden turn to racism and xenophobia all around the world, it is a manifesto that pinpoints the effects of sweeping inequality – and does this by pushing the boundaries provocatively and testing the patience of the main character. However, it sometimes misses the point when it radicalises its message, and is not inventive enough to be as hard-hitting as 12 Years a Slave, for instance.