It was only a few years ago when 12 Years a Slave was released, and eventually went on to win Best Picture. The film marked a sort of cultural shift, serving as further proof to Hollywood that black filmgoers were a profitable demographic worth catering to. More than that, the film’s sterling reception showed that American audiences were ready to confront the harsh truths of our racist history, particularly with regard to black slavery.
That said, it bears remembering that director Steve McQueen was born in London. Chiwetel Ejiofor is also a native Londoner. Michael Fassbender was born in West Germany. Breakout star Lupita Nyong’o was born in Mexico. With some exceptions (most notably writer John Ridley and producer Brad Pitt), it seemed like most of the primary movers and shakers behind that American film didn’t actually come from America. Thus the movie came from an external and more detached perspective, which certainly has its value.
That said, if Americans are honestly so ready to confront our own racist history, it seems like we need to make our own film on the subject. A film told from the perspective of those who actually descended from the slaves and their owners, who still have to live with that baggage, presented with brutal honesty. Sure, Quentin Tarantino tried that with Django Unchained, and again to a more implicit degree with The Hateful Eight, but Tarantino’s films are far too stylized and gleefully violent to serve the same purpose that 12 Years did.
So here we are with The Birth of a Nation, the passion project and directorial debut of writer/star/producer Nate Parker. The movie is loosely based on the real-life story of Nat Turner (Parker, natch), a slave who was allowed to study the Bible and serve as a preacher for his fellow plantation workers. Then in 1831, Turner led a two-day slave rebellion that resulted in the deaths of 56 white slaveowners. In the aftermath, no less than 100 black slaves (possibly as many as 200) were slaughtered in retaliation, most of whom had nothing at all to do with the uprising.
The rebellion itself doesn’t happen until the third act. Until that point, the plot mostly consists of Turner’s life on the plantation, as injustice piles on injustice until Turner simply can’t tolerate any more. It takes longer than you might expect.
Nat lives on the Turner family plantation, primarily run by Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) and her son (Samuel Turner, played by Armie Hammer). And for slaveowners, the Turners are surprisingly decent people. They don’t appear to be overly abusive, they don’t act like redneck stereotypes, they don’t talk like they’re getting paid by the n-word, and their slaves appear to be in pretty good shape. After all, it’s not just any slaveowner who would allow one of their slaves to read the Bible — most slaves would be put to death immediately if they showed any sign of literacy. And it’s so much easier for the Turners to think of themselves as saints when they know their neighbors are so much worse.
That said, the fact remains that Nat is only allowed to read the Bible, and only certain passages of that. Specifically, the parts of the Bible that command obedience, glorify slavery, etc. And that’s what it really comes down to here — the Turners’ baseline of respect for their slaves takes a distant backseat to slavery itself. Everyone gets along when everything is going well and good, until a drought comes along and all the farms have to work twice as hard for half as much. When the chips are down and the Turner family reputation is at stake, that’s when Samuel becomes just another racist asshole and Nat becomes just another slave.
But that doesn’t come until the halfway mark or so. Until that point, the film is remarkable for how mundane it is. Aside from the occasional and brief violent flare-ups from two-dimensional racist assholes, the front half is surprisingly short on whipping, torture, raping, lynching, and so forth. Through the vast majority of Nat’s growth to adulthood, he and the rest of his fellow slaves are simply working, playing with their loved ones, and living from day to day. There’s a pleasant kind of monotony in these sequences and montages, not unlike the kind of living and working monotony we endure in our own everyday lives.
It all comes across as normal, which is of course the entire point. This is how it was back in the day. People were treated as property, and everyone was okay with that so long as the status quo was orderly and peaceful for everyone. Even among the slaves themselves, there are some (most notably Isaiah, played by Roger Guenveur Smith) who would rather play the game and keep their heads down than risk a total systemic collapse that results in everybody dead. Nat himself is actively complicit in this, and he has to wrestle with that.
This brings me to the use of gospel and scripture. Nat is hired by farmers all over the county so he can preach to slaves, for the purpose of lifting their spirits and putting the fear of God into anyone who might forget the pro-slavery parts of scripture. But then Nat arrives at these other plantations, alongside Samuel Turner, and the both of them are aghast at what they find. Here are the poor abused slaves, starved and overworked to the point of death, subject to unthinkable cruelty. Here also are the dumb rednecks with nothing to their credit but the color of their skin. Nat clearly knows that the slaves need a different kind of gospel, and he knows that the Bible could be used just as easily to condemn slavery, so he’s got a tough line to tread.
All throughout the movie, we see that everybody loves the Bible only so long as it says what they want to hear. The white slaveowners all fear God until His authority trumps theirs. Everybody — black and white alike — is eager to let God deliver justice in the afterlife, especially if it means that nobody has to bother with giving out justice here in this life.
All of this comes back to a central question: How did we allow this to continue for so long? Sure, there’s the economic factor of cheap labor, but that seems like too easy an answer next to all the pain and suffering involved. And yes, there were a lot of braindead racists to keep things going, but that excuse is pretty thin. Are we really supposed to believe that every single white person who ever lived in the South through the first hundred years was a cartoonishly racist fuckweasel? Did the North somehow hold a monopoly on intelligence and conscience? Bullshit.
There had to be some halfway decent people living in the antebellum South, at least by the standards of the time. How were they able to stand by and keep the system going for so long? It’s a question that Americans have been grappling with since the Civil War at least. Which is exactly why the film is so much stronger, with subject matter so much more deeply examined, for being made by a predominantly American cast and crew with an American auteur at the helm.
All of that said, it’s not like we don’t get into the bloodier aspects of our slave-owning history. Indeed, the scenes of torture and violence are unflinching in their depiction. But what makes it even more uncomfortable is in precisely how the more grotesque moments are spaced throughout the film. It’s not gratuitous, but strategically placed and staged for maximum impact. Indeed, showing us the “best case scenario” at the Turner plantation serves to make the “worst case scenario” look that much more dreadful by comparison. Moreover, when the slave rebellion finally comes, there’s nothing even the least bit glorious about the bloody, messy, sometimes instant deaths.
Nate Parker proves himself to be a remarkably gifted director, with shot compositions and camera movements that do so much to advance the storytelling. Parker’s no slouch as an actor, either — he very effectively plays Nat with such intelligence and charisma that it’s easy to see how he could lead such a following. Kudos are also due to Armie Hammer, who was stuck with the unenviable task of playing a man who goes from a likeable supporting character to an irredeemable shitheel. Yet Hammer plays the transition in a gradual way that feels like a consistent character arc, which is quite an accomplishment.
So on the whole, this is a good film. Though I do have a few nitpicks.
To start with, there’s the very beginning. The film spends entirely too much time on platitudes and prophecies telling Nat (and us) that he’s destined to be something greater. This is part of the film’s more mystical aspect, a strange blend of Christian imagery and African imagery that appears in random visions. This part of the film is too brief to do any real damage, but it’s also too minimal to really accomplish much of anything. So it’s more of a pointless distraction that really should’ve been cut.
The very ending is also problematic. The film’s very title (boldly appropriated from the D.W. Griffith landmark piece of KKK propaganda) implies that this slave uprising was a crucial turning point for our country. That this moment led directly into the Civil War and the end of slavery in America. And the film’s closing moments completely fail to make a convincing case. They make a few hints in that direction, but it’s not enough.
Still, the movie’s real weakness is in its portrayal of time’s passage. The film takes place over 25 years, and we only get one title card at the very beginning to give us a date. Couple that with all the various montages and it becomes difficult to keep track of what’s happening when and what takes how much time. It gets confusing.
A prime example concerns Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Without getting too deep into spoilers, she gets taken out of commission at one point in the story and spends a huge chunk of the runtime in bed. And because of how hard it is to keep track of time, I had no idea whether she had been stuck in recovery for days or months. I didn’t even know if she was alive or dead.
There’s also the fact that Cherry (along with nearly every other female character in this film) was fridged for the sake of Nat’s development. It’s kind of understandable, given the context that black women are nothing more than property, but fridging is still something we could use far less of. Just the fact that we have a word for it is depressing.
Those nitpicks aside, The Birth of a Nation is definitely a good movie. The performances are solid and Nate Parker proves himself to be a talented director, even if the screenplay could have used another pass. It’s a bold movie that doesn’t just examine the evils of slavery, but why those evils were allowed to continue for so long. And the film submits answers that are sadly all too understandable and relateable for modern audiences. It’s a worthy film for the 12 Years legacy (far more than other lesser attempts like Free State of Jones), presenting all the righteous anger and bold social relevance with only a fraction of the violence and bloodshed. Absolutely worth a look.