Generic to a fault, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation falls prey to common pitfalls of both biopics and debut features. The obvious passion for central figure Nat Turner (and his leading of a slave uprising 30 years before the Civil War) is often thrown asunder by bland characterizations and clunky visuals. The film has the fire to tell a story untold, but still lacks any ideas in how to tell it – Birth is almost always in conflict with itself.Parker plays Turner and wrote the film (with Jean Celestin), and Turner is presented with the glass half full from each of Parker’s three entry points. Turner is rendered bland on the page, distancingly deified on the screen, and inconsistently played (though with some powerful moments). While we are taken along the chapter marks leading to the rebellion, Turner remains unilluminated for the audience, somewhat of a cipher that we can’t even project our own emotions upon. In losing the man, the film loses a bit of its meaning.
The film languishes in horrific violence done to both slave an oppressor. A slave having his teeth hammered out of his head is leered at with the same enthralled eye as the beheading of a slave wrangler. For a film dealing with the destruction of black bodies, the intent is muddled when the film is so enrapt in brutality.
However, the film is at its most effective when violence is its main plot point. Parker’s passion and skill comes through most succinctly in the film’s third act, as the slave rebellion is finally realized. It provides the film’s most assured and confident stretch – not only is it clear that this is the part of Turner’s story that Parker wants to tell, but also where he is most equipped as a storyteller. While the preceding film lacks focus and struggles to take hold as a traditional biopic, the urgency of uprising brings visual and structural clarity. Parker finally finds a point of view and focusing more on the revolt rather than saving it for the finale could have made for a stronger debut.
The film’s ensemble is also quite disparate. Parker is perhaps most untrained in directing actors and knowing how to use them. For example, Penelope Ann Miller is ghastly and broad as a slave owner and given far more narrative credence than is rational. Meanwhile the exciting ensemble playing actual slaves (like the always inviting Aunjanue Ellis and Colman Domingo) are given shocking little to do, especially considering that this is a story that belongs to them.
Driven by import, but burdened by a lack of ideas and clarity, The Birth of a Nation is standard directorial debut fare about a subject that deserves a more assured approach.