I’ve been wrestling for weeks now with my problems with Nate Parker’s debut feature, “The Birth of a Nation,” a powerful, flawed picture. It’s a tremendous piece of American history. The story belongs to the ages. The film’s reputation, however, might have peaked with the Sundance Film Festival in January.
In August 1831, the enslaved preacher Nat Turner led an armed revolt in Southampton County, Va., freeing dozens of fellow slaves and killing dozens of white men, women and children in a two-day melee. Turner eluded capture for weeks after the short-lived rebellion.
The publication of “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” reportedly the imprisoned Turner’s version of events as told to the physician Thomas R. Gray, set certain ideas in literary stone regarding the revolutionary. From birth, he was considered a chosen one by his people, subject to visions; Turner waited for a sign from God to lead the oppressed out of bondage and into the fire.
Parker’s film aims to erase all traces of zealotry or fanaticism from Turner’s image, and to humanize and Hollywood-ize the Turner myth. In Parker’s screenplay, the man is never just a man; he is freedom incarnate.
How does this play out in story terms? As played by writer-director Parker, Turner is a genial firebrand, a man of his time but very much out ahead of it, divinely inspired at every step. The most effective element of “The Birth of a Nation” is its middle section, where the grueling facts of life under slavery gradually send Turner into action. As a preacher for hire, Turner witnesses one atrocity after another. On a neighboring plantation where he’s to placate the slaves, Turner watches as a slave’s teeth are hammered out of his mouth as punishment for a hunger strike. Later, the rape of Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), demands an eye for an eye, as does a second rape, that of the wife (Gabrielle Union) of Turner’s insurrectionist friend (Colman Domingo). In a key scene, Parker comforts his disfigured wife after the assault. When the camera starts drifting away from her and toward him, you think: really? This moment belongs to you, too?
Parts of the movie are bluntly effective and beautifully acted, though one of the drawbacks is Parker’s own performance. Even the rape victims have a hard time getting their fair share of the screen time; everything in the story keeps the focus strictly on Parker. He’s a good actor but not much of a director; the visual style and approach of the film tries a little of everything, and often too much of everything. There is, however, an inspired leap forward when the film needs it most: The movie imagines an epilogue, brief and sharp, 30 years into America’s future.
“The Birth of a Nation” is rarely dull. But Parker sees the Nat Turner story as righteous wrath, straight, no chaser, not much characterization. Very likely, the real Turner was a more unruly, contradictory and human figure than the icon at the center of things here.
‘The Birth of a Nation’
Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity. 2:00. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.