Good intentions can only carry one so far. In the case of Nate Parker, he has nothing but the best of intentions. He is remaking “The Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 classic that has stood the test of time as a cinematic achievement in production, despite a moral compass that is downright reprehensible. It acts more as a time capsule today than a relatable morality tale, studied in film courses for its technical achievement. Its portrayal of the KKK as a heroic force and the discriminated black civilians as aggressive louts is appalling. Nate Parker’s mission in remaking the film is to reverse the protagonists and antagonists as they rightfully should be, with the oppressed minorities being seen as the heroes as they were.
That is all well and good, and I applaud Nate Parker for taking this stance. Not only is it morally upstanding, but a brilliant way to approach a remake. Do not simply reinforce the story, but turn it on its head and direct it from the opposing viewpoint. Here, the KKK is not a proponent, not even a mere idea in 1831 when this film takes place. Instead, the villains are simple slave owners and the heroes are their rebellious slaves, led by Nat Turner (Nate Parker).
Again, this is all well and good. What isn’t good, unfortunately, is the execution. This is Nate Parker’s directorial debut and it shows. Despite his noble stance, he exhibits a lack of confidence in his direction. He plays up the righteousness of the oppressed and the evil of the oppressors, resulting in characters that, at times, seem like caricatures. He incorporates translucent imagery and heavy symbolism sporadically to highlight the mental state of Nat, such as envisioning his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), as an angel guiding him to the light during great anguish. This imagery is not only forced, but so loosely brought upon that it doesn’t gel with the film’s tone. It seemingly exists to showcase the directorial flourishes Parker possesses without any sound reasoning.
Parker’s portrayal of Nat Turner is good, but his scripting of the historical figure is not. He is presented as almost superhuman, his ability to read at such a young age (and with no teaching) being addressed as an inhuman gift. It is referred to as a gift from God, fitting considering his eventual ascension into becoming a preacher. He is never shown to be violent despite his deserved anger, working alongside his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), with the utmost respect and giving that respect to all of those he encounters, especially the hateful. He seems too good to be true and, while he may very well have been, showing him without flaws negates his human quality. He comes across more as an archetype than an emotionally driven individual, fighting for equality not because it’s the right thing to do, but because that’s how the story goes.
The villains don’t fare much better. Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) is a slave hunter who appears only to serve up evil. He’s like an apparition, popping up when a demonic force is meant to stir the pot. He is responsible for the death of Nat’s father, brutally beats his wife, then has a showdown with him in the initial rebellion. He is severely underdeveloped, a one-note antagonist spewing hatred to remind the audience that yes, racism was a malevolent disease that plagued the nation. The same goes for the rest of the slave owners, barking out demeaning slang and whipping slaves with no remorse. They act like villains out of a pulp novel, not a historical recreation.
The only slave owner to be shown as realistic is Samuel Turner. He treats Nat with respect, but only when he’s obeying orders. He’s shown as compassionate at first, but his iniquitous side presents itself the second Nat begins to question him. We see that Turner views Nat as nothing more than property, just as he viewed Cherry as a business investment. Seeing the delight on the faces of those happy to have their very own slave is disheartening, as it embodies the true horror of racism and slavery: the repudiation of humanity. It is not the words or actions of the racism that it makes it soul-crushing, but the dismissal of life present in those beliefs. The oppressed are viewed as property, not humans, and that is more damning than anything! Steve McQueen understood this, hence why his “12 Years a Slave” was a haunting masterpiece! Nate Parker, unfortunately, only has a minute grasp of this.
Instead, Parker resorts to cinematic conventions to convey the drama. When Nat witnesses a young white girl treating a slave like a pet, wrapping a leash around her neck, the film crawls into slow-motion, Henry Jackman’s soundtrack brooding like a tense thriller denoting that, yes, this is evil (as if one needed to be informed). When Nat revolts and starts picking off his oppressors, it is shot like a horror film. Nat appears ominously before his master at the foot of the bed, an unnerving score accompanying his attack. Taken as is, it is well-shot, the cinematography of Elliot Davis acute and effective. It belongs to a fictional thriller, however, not a serious historical drama.
For the horrors of slavery to be frightening, they must be presented as grounded. The terror comes from accepting them as fact, not believing them to be of manufactured tension. There are times when this is the case in the film, such as the sequence in which a slave’s teeth are hammered out as punishment for a hunger strike. Neither Parker’s direction nor Davis’ cinematography plays up this action, shooting it simply as barbaric. Because of this, it is unsettling.
Nate Parker has skills as a filmmaker, no doubt. He has great scope and grand aspirations. What he doesn’t have is seasoned experience, which “Birth of a Nation” so desperately needed. This is a film that relies heavily on raw emotion and an understanding of the human spirit, not a keen understanding on cinematic theatrics. It is a noble effort on Parker’s part to tackle such a paramount task, but he lacked the confidence to support it.
Final Rating: C+