"Everything is as it should be."

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The Birth of a Nation : A Review and Commentary


My Rating : 2 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation : Skip It.

The Birth of a Nation is based on the true story of Nat Turner, a slave and preacher in 1831 who rallied free and enslaved blacks to rise up against the ruling white power structure of their Virginia county in a bid for freedom. The film is written, directed, produced and stars Nate Parker as Nat Turner.

The story of Nat Turner is an important one in the history of America and African-Americans. Turner's story should resonate with audiences of today as they try to come to terms with their nation's checkered history, the evil of slavery and the racial divisions of our time. Sadly, The Birth of a Nation does not live up to the audacious ambition of its writer/director/star Nate Parker. Instead the film is an unoriginal, one-dimensional, pedestrian and generic take on the scourge of slavery and the damage it has done.


The problems with The Birth of a Nation are multiple, so let's start at the beginning. The Birth of a Nation takes the same title as the iconic D.W. Griffth's film from 1915, which portrayed Blacks as savages and the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of the white race from the scourge of Black barbarians set free post-civil war. Griffith's film was a monumental achievement in filmmaking of the time and was a blockbuster. Griffith's film was also, obviously, a piece of unabashed racist propaganda. Parker's 2016 The Birth of a Nation is propaganda as well, just from the other side of the spectrum, he basically said as much in an interview when he said, "so I wanted a film that people could watch and be affected - almost hold them hostage in the theater, where they have to see this images, and they have to see the parallels and the themes that are echoing right now in 2016." The problem is that  Parker's The Birth of a Nation isn't nearly as well made in relation to the current cinematic times as Griffith's film was in its day. 

Propaganda sets out to convince you of something, for instance Griffith convinced a lot of people that the Klan were the guardians of "real America" with his Birth of a Nation. As Ava DuVernay's wonderful documentary on Netflix The 13th (which I highly recommend) shows us, the Klan was nearly non-existent until Griffith's film came out and wowed audiences across the country. Not surprisingly, Griffith's well made propaganda shifted people's perspectives, that is what propaganda is supposed to do. The problem with Parker's The Birth of a Nation as propaganda is that in order to put Nat Turner in as positive and saintly a light as possible, Parker softens the rough edges, complexity and depth of his characters and situations, thus neutering a cavalcade of potential drama and insight. This blunting of the edges of Turner in order to sell him as a saint or messiah of a movement may not be the most wise move dramatically, but it could work in terms of propaganda, the problem is that Parker lacks the skill and vision as a writer/director to be able to pull it off. The film needs to be spectacularly well made in order for it to work as propaganda, but it just isn't. It is visually flat, cinematically stale, and the writing, directing, staging and acting are all painfully amateur.


Another issue with the film is that it doesn't entirely know what it wants to be. Is it a revenge film like Django Unchained? Or is it a horrors of slavery film like 12 Years a Slave? Is it trying to be both? It ends up being neither. Django was a delicious and entertaining bit of wish-fulfillment that was incredibly well made by Quentin Tarantino. 12 Years a Slave was a relentlessly intense journey into the brutal physical, emotional, mental and spiritual realities of slavery directed by one of the great directors of our time, Steve McQueen. Parker's The Birth of a Nation is a lukewarm, middle of the road rehash of every slave movie stereotype and trope. It is not bloodthirsty and action packed enough to be revenge entertainment like Django Unchained, and not thoughtful and meticulous enough to be high art like 12 Years a Slave.


Writer/Director/Star Nate Parker is a solid, if unspectacular actor. Parker gives himself a handful of speeches that should have been rousing but instead feel rehearsed, not uncommon when a writer is reciting his own words. Parker's big speeches feel too performed and not vibrantly alive and immediate. That said, Parker does have an undeniable charisma that should serve him well in a quest for stardom, but artistically speaking his eyes are way too big for his stomach. Parker simply lacks the skill and talent as a writer and director to have taken on the task of telling this most vital of stories. Whether it was Parker's ego or blind ambition I don't know, but he does Nat Turner no justice by directing this film. 

There are no doubt many, creator Nate Parker included, who were hoping The Birth of a Nation would resonate with audiences and reviewers alike so that the film and its cast and crew would be among the Oscar contenders this year. Parker said in regards to making The Birth of a Nation, "…it's kind of like a battle cry from a filmmaking standpoint. Because yes, we need to deal with pervasive racism in Hollywood…", so obviously the whole "#OscarsSoWhite"
meme was part of the impetus to make the film. The reality is that the #OscarsSoWhite meme is untrue and that Black actors are not underrepresented by the Academy Awards, I have done the statistical analysis myself to prove it. Regardless, The Birth of a Nation is nowhere near Oscar worthy, and neither are any of the performances. 


Another issue with The Birth of a Nation is that it alters history in order to make a stronger argument as propaganda, but in doing so it removes some of the greatest dramatic material at its disposal. For instance, Parker's Turner is made to be a messiah of the anti-slavery movement, a man who sacrifices himself for the sins of a nation. This is not historically accurate. The slave uprising is also not historically accurate as it doesn't portray the murders of white women and children, which were a large number of the targets, and it also doesn't portray Turner's impotence when it comes to the act of killing. I understand why you would leave those things out in order to make Nat Turner a hero, but by making him an unquestionable action hero they have removed the nuance that makes him dramatically imperative.

For example, Turner's inability to kill could be used as tremendous symbol for the impotence of the Black male in modern America. Showing Turner and his rebels massacring women and children could highlight the moral depravity brought about by slavery upon all who come into contact with it. It would also be an interesting way to show how Turner's fervent religious beliefs could be skewed to make slaughtering woman and children not only necessary but righteous, a parallel to the terrorists of today who mask their murderous wars behind the righteousness of their cause and their God. The theme of religion being used to both support slavery and support the uprising against it, is briefly, but poorly, touched upon in the film, but it could have been mined for much more interesting material than Parker unearths.


One final point about missed opportunities in The Birth of a Nation has to do with Nate Parker's personal history, which I read about after seeing the film. Seventeen years ago, when Nate Parker was in college, he and his roommate were charged with raping a white woman. Parker was acquitted and his roommate was convicted, but had his conviction dropped on a technicality a few years later. The woman who alleged she was raped committed suicide in 2012. What does this have to do with Parker's film? Well, I am not the type of person to judge a film by the moral character of it's maker, I try to judge a film on its merits, and I was unaware of the charges prior to seeing the film. But what struck me as odd in hindsight was that Parker added a rape to the narrative of Nat Turner that is not historically accurate. That he did this is not surprising given his limited ability as a writer, adding the rape is sort of a "propaganda 101" move on Parker's part. But when you put the film rape in to the context of Parker's actual history, it becomes a bit disturbing to say the least. And the irony of it all is that the most interesting part of the Nat Turner story in particular, and slavery in general, is how it feeds the shame and self-loathing of an entire race in our current culture. The shame of the victimization by slavery still marks Black culture today, both consciously and unconsciously. The self-destructive, uber-masculine Black culture of our time is a direct result of the emasculation of Black men in slavery and Jim Crow over the last 400 years. The reason Nat Turner is so important as a symbol to African-Americans is because he was not a victim, he was not without agency, he did not take his slavery lying down, he stood like a man and fought back. Turner may have lost, but instead of living on his knees he died on his feet.  The ironic thing in regards to Parker's personal life, is that his alleged rape victim suffered from a very similar shame as the descendants of slaves, the shame of victimhood and not having fought back hard enough. The shame carried by Parker's alleged victim led her to kill herself, much like the descendants of slaves today lead self-destructive lives over their historical shame. Parker's alleged rape victim had to carry the shame of her rape and her inability to stop it, just like Black culture of today has to carry the shame of slavery and their forefathers inability to stop it. This shame and victimhood felt by both Parker's victim and African-Americans is a consequence of trauma and is not rational, but that doesn't mean it isn't very real.

The emasculation of the Black man in the past has led to a deep seeded shame of today which rears its head in self-defeating riots, an embracing of criminality, generations of boys with absent fathers and endemic poverty. This shame is born of a lack of agency during slavery and creates a sub-conscious lack of agency in our current time. This is not to say that this slave shame is the entire reason for the aforementioned issues in Black culture, as those issues exist in other cultures as well, but it is to say that this historical victim shame is fertile soil for cultural self loathing from which these issues can grow and prosper. Until the deep seated shame of victimization by slavery and the emasculation that came with it, is taken head on and resolved, all other efforts to change things in the broader culture will fail. This doesn't mean that there isn't racism today or structural white supremacy or anything of the sort, it is to say that until Black culture can heal itself of this historical victim wound, the endless cycle of self-loathing and self-destruction will continue. It is also to say that until America can heal its palpable historical guilt over slavery, it will continue to suffer from its festering racial wound and the suffocating and calamitous hate and violence that accompanies it.

One bit of proof for this thesis is brought up in the previously mentioned Ava DuVernay film The 13th, where the idea of Black criminality is explored and its roots uncovered. While it was White men who criminalized the Black man to the broader culture, it wasn't just White culture that believed that story, Black culture believed it too. I believe Black culture wouldn't have believed such a denigrating and self-destructive myth if not for the shame of victimhood by slavery and the self-loathing that accompanies it that lives deep in a people's soul.



Of course, the argument could, and most likely will, be made that I am a white man, so what the hell do I know. That might very well be a valid argument. In my defense I would say this, that being Irish, I know a little something about being the descendant of a people who were held captive and emasculated and having that cultural victim wound be passed down through generations. The Irish were under the thumb of the British, suffering genocides and indentured servitude along with other horrific indignities, for as long as Africans were enslaved in America. The Irish to this day carry the victim's shame, and the anger and self-destructive impulses that go along with it, as a result of their being under a brutal British rule. It might not be an exact parallel, but it is a parallel. Take my opinion and experience for whatever you judge it to be worth.


In conclusion, The Birth of a Nation should be a vital film for our time, but it isn't. The film is a terribly wasted opportunity as Nat Turner's story is such a rich, complex and fascinating one which could enlighten and entertain people of all races. Sadly, Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation is a run of the mill, dramatically limp disappointment. The audacity of the film's star and creative force, Nate Parker, strangles the potential of the Nat Turner story in its cradle. The Birth of a Nation is not worth seeing in the theatre, or frankly anywhere else. If you stumble across it on cable, feel free to watch and see what you think, but appointment viewing it ain't. One can only hope that a few years down the road, a more talented director tells Nat Turner's story, as it is a story that is ripe with dramatic potential. It is also a story that, if told well, could bring about some much needed healing and change.