DVD Review - The Birth of a Nation (2016)

The film premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in January. It won two major awards there, the Audience Award and the U.S. Grand Jury Prize. It was bought for $17.5 million, the largest price for an acquisition at that festival. There was a lot of hype coming out of Park City, Utah.

Fox Searchlight released the film in theaters in October. It didn't do well in the box office. Some speculate its poor performance was due to the subject matter itself. Some say it was due to the controversy around the man behind it.

The movie was nominated for a Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing First-Time Feature. It was also nominated for six NAACP Image Awards. It lost the DGA Award and all six Image Awards, which were just held on February 11, 2017. A month prior, the movie was released on video, DVD and Blu-ray.

Given that the movie is about Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831 and given that February is Black History Month, it's a perfect opportunity to talk about the film removed of a lot of external forces. The movie does the basics of telling Nat Turner's story. It raises one, interesting issue, but it doesn't do much with that issue but let it dissipate in the wind. In fact, writer-director Nate Parker becomes guilty of the thing he's condemning. He perhaps doesn't realize it because it's layered and nuanced, but Parker would rather hit broad points, only caring that the big picture of slavery is the enemy and anything that fought against it is heroic no matter how bloody their hands.

Nate Parker (Beyond the Lights and The Great Debaters) stars as Nat Turner, an African-American born into slavery in 1800. It's discovered at age 9 he can read. It's never explained how he can read. The wife of Benjamin Turner later gives him reading lessons, but she only does so because she realizes Nat already can read. That's never really explained, and it's only hinted that maybe his parents had a hand in it, but who knows?

By his mid-to-late twenties, he works as a preacher because the only book he's allowed to read is the Bible. He gives sermons to the slaves of his plantation. He spends most of his time picking cotton out in the fields, but things seem to be going smoothly. As such, other plantation owners want Nat to preach to slaves on their farms to help keep them in line. Yet, it's never made clear how that works or how Nat's sermons help. It seems like he's only there for the day and leaves. How is that enough to keep people in line?

Nat was told he had to convince slaves they had to obey the white land-owners and he had to use the Bible to do so. He quoted Bible passages and gave impassioned speeches, but Parker breezes through this quickly as to feel unconvincing. There's a disconnect here. I don't get how Nat's brief visits to other plantations change or make those slaves there feel better or want to do what the whites want any more than by any other means. Parker never really establishes what the slaves' relationship to religion is at the start. Nat doesn't seem like he's converting them. If they already believe in Jesus or Heaven, why do Nat's words matter any more or less? Is it simply because he's black? It doesn't track because Nat didn't learn Scripture from a black person.

Eventually, the horrors of slavery catch up to Nat and he realizes that he's basically being used to perpetuate slavery and promote it. He's been using the Bible to justify slavery. He figures that the Bible can also be used to justify abolition and the freedom of black people from bondage. He acknowledges the Bible is a book of contradictions or contradicting interpretations. Logically, one would think he would become an atheist but he doesn't.

He plans a rebellion, specifically to kill white people. He uses his faith or things learned from the Bible to justify his actions. Now, slavery ended 34 years after Nat Turner's rebellion because the country went to war and tons of people were killed, yet there is still a difference between two armies battling fiercely and hacking a man and a woman while they're asleep in their bed, which is what Nat and his fellow slaves did.

There is a moment when Nat vomits after murdering a man in his bed, but later his mother says she's proud of him. Arguably, Parker wants to celebrate Nat Turner much in the same way Edward Zwick celebrated the men in Glory (1989). Yet, the way Parker frames it makes the whole thing hypocritical. Even though the tone was vastly different, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) doesn't have his character be a giant hypocrite.

Nat becomes against the Bible being used to justify the horror of slavery. Yet, he turns right around and uses the Bible himself to justify another horror, the slaughter of white people. Parker simply wants to portray Nat Turner as a hero who fought against slavery. This is underlined by depicting Nat as basically turning himself in once his rebellion fails and wants to stop the deaths of blacks who are killed as a terror until Nat is captured. In reality, Nat remained in hiding until he was accidentally found. Yet, having Nat turn himself in puts more of a halo over his head, which Parker feels desperate to do.

Parker also doesn't do much to characterize the other slaves. Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away With Murder) plays Nat's wife, Cherry, but she and Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane) who plays Esther merely exist to be victims for the men to try to save.

Both women are the subjects of rape. Cherry is brutally and randomly attacked. Esther is basically prostituted to horny white men. Both incidents are typical forms of sexism and patriarchy in films and TV.

If one has seen the series Underground on WGN, there is a similar incident where a slave is prostituted. On the TV series, instead of a female slave, it's a male slave who's prostituted. It was unexpected to say the least and quite frankly more clever than what happens here. Parker isn't really clever in his film.

Also, the only character who gets any significant depth or nuance, possibly outside of Nat Turner, is Samuel Turner, played by Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger). It's weird when the most significant character in a slave narrative isn't the slave but instead the white slave-owner.

Rated R for disturbing violent content and some brief nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.


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