“Nation” Proves Problematic, yet Compelling
Incendiary, problematic and arresting, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is the hot-button film of the moment, an unflinching look at the vagaries of slavery and its echoes through the generations. Focusing on a slave rebellion of 1831 led by the radical slave Nat Turner, the movie employs a slow-burn approach as we see the protagonist go from a devoted man of God to radical, revolutionary as the atrocities that surround him finally take their toll. This is the sort of material that appeals to the gut, counting on an emotional response from the audience. Parker, who served as the film’s director, star, writer and co-producer, succeeds in fostering that, though Turner ultimately comes off as a contradictory symbol.
Beginning in 1809 in Southhampton, Georgia, we see young Nat come to the attention of the matriarch of the plantation Elizabeth (a never better Penelope Ann Miller), who recognizes an uncommon intelligence in the young boy. She teaches him to read, using the Bible as their text, and soon Nat (Parker) is delivering sermons to his fellow slaves. As he grows older, this self-styled preacher is hired out by former childhood playmate and current owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) to other plantation owners to deliver sermons based on Holy Scripture that implores them to remain subservient to their masters. However, after witnessing a litany of abuse and mistreatment, the tone and content of Nat’s message changes, becoming more militant in intent.
Parker assaults the viewer with images of degradation and violence throughout. A dead slave, tossed aside like a piece of trash on the side of a country road; slaves stripped bare at auction; another having his teeth knocked out with a chisel and then force-fed to end his hunger strike; Turner’s scarred and stitched back after enduring a whipping; the face of his battered wife (Aja Naomi King), the victim of a gang rape; a young white girl at play, leading a young black girl around with a noose about her neck.
The cumulative effect of these images has the same result on viewers as it does on Nat, stoking in them a sense of rage that can only be slaked vicariously by our surrogate on screen. The film’s strongest moments occur in its second act as we see Nat transform into an instrument of God’s wrath, feeling fully justified in inciting a rebellion against those that have oppressed him and his kind.
There’s certainly no room for argument where justification and action are concerned. However, once the rebellion begins – an event that lasted only 48 hours and resulted in 60 slave owners and members of their families killed – the image of Nat becomes a contradictory and troubling one. While speaking of violence in the abstract, he is seen as a righteous warrior; but once the attacks begin, his clothes become blood-soaked and his eyes go dead, the figure becomes one of forced contradictions. Left with no recourse, the violence Nat and his followers inflict ultimately undoes their cause, casting them in a light beyond redemption no matter the justification.
Still and all, there’s no denying that The Birth of a Nation is an affecting piece of work, one that gets under the viewer’s skin and stays there for a good long while. Parker errs towards the end with touches that are far too obvious to be taken seriously or at face value. Yet, there’s no denying he knows how to manipulate his audience and has a flare for the dramatic built on broad actions as well as subtle ones. This, as well as the way “Nation” in many ways parallels today’s continued issues of race will keep it as a source of conversation for some time to come.