Controversial movies are nothing new, but few films in recent memory are layered as deeply with controversy as “The Birth of a Nation.” Nearly every aspect of the movie has raised issues of some kind, from Nate Parker, the creator and star of the movie — who was accused of rape during his time at Pennsylvania State University — to Nat Turner, the subject of the film, to the movie’s title itself.
It also matters that the movie has come out at a time when racial tensions have been thrust into the spotlight. It’s telling that a slave rebellion that took place nearly 200 years ago will have the same roots of prejudice as today’s revolts. A movie with this content has the potential to take us back to the origins of our racial tensions and to help facilitate conversation.
But with all of that aside, is “The Birth of a Nation” actually any good? For all the noise around the movie, it turns out to be much ado about nothing, because the movie itself is more or less just fine. With doses of horror at the abomination of slavery and uplifting moments that you’d expect from a movie about a slave rebellion, the movie unfortunately never reaches its potential effectiveness for either aspect.
That’s not to say that “The Birth of a Nation” hits these beats poorly; the story of Nat Turner definitely deserves to be told in its own right, but it’s not the first film about slavery, nor the last, and certainly not the best of them.
There are some positives, because for all of the backlash he’s received, Parker gives a genuinely powerful performance as Turner, showing his transition from submissive slave to fiery, violent rebel. He’s not afraid to get emotional when needed, and makes it very visible, to the point of being overly dramatic. But in the role of an insurgent priest, the dramatics fit nicely.
Most other actors in the movie are fine, if a bit subdued. Armie Hammer, as slave master Samuel Turner, gives a good performance as the “about as sympathetic of a slave master a slave master could be” character. For a pretty important character to the movie and Nat’s journey, he’s fairly forgettable in the grand scheme.
As powerful of a performance as Parker gives, he’s also the director and writer, and it’s in these aspects that the movie has the most flaws.
The structure and plotting of the movie, while fully formed enough, becomes noticeably shoddy in some areas. For one, the time flow in the movie can become very disorienting. It is expected for a movie that documents the entire span of a man’s life to have time gaps, but the ones in this film come without warning and can easily confuse the viewer. Another aspect that weighs the movie down is the occasional visions. Most dream sequences usually have a purpose that informs the plot or characters. The dream sequences in “The Birth of a Nation,” while symbolic and meaningful, often disrupt the flow of the movie.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in the plot, and one that comes back to the controversy around the movie, is how Nat Turner’s rebellion is depicted. There are real-life aspects of the rebellion that are noticeably forgotten in the movie, aspects that would have brought some necessary nuance to the events of the film. I can’t help but feel that the movie is refusing to have a complete conversation about the history of the dynamics of slavery and revolt, one that would perhaps lead to a better understanding.
People will so often dismiss movies about slavery or any other subject that showcases the United States’ past mistakes, insisting that we should simply move past those times in our history as they can only bring up bad feelings. Many disagree, believing that we should never ignore our past, or else we risk forgetting the lessons it has taught us. That doesn’t mean that the movie should be without purpose, but rather that it should leave us with a new viewpoint of what we thought we knew. “The Birth of a Nation” simply doesn’t give that.
A story that deserves to be told, “The Birth of a Nation” features talented performances and brutally real depictions of slavery, but ultimately cannot reach the emotional and thrilling potential it has, nor can it find the readiness to give justice to the full story of Turner.