If there is a downside to the becoming the highest-priced acquisition in the history of the Sundance Film Festival, it is that $10 million film that deserved a budget of at least $30 million from a first-time director now faces expectations that far more accomplished filmmakers would find impossible to meet. Still, what Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” lacks in technical finesse, it more than makes up for in passion and raw power, fitting the description that President Woodrow Wilson was said to have once ascribed to another film with the same title in “writing history with lightning.”
That 1915 film D.W. Griffith made glorifying the Ku Klux Klan may still remain a fixture at film schools the world over for its historical value as the very first feature film, yet by reappropriating the title, Parker hints at what makes his directorial debut about Nat Turner, the fascinating leader of an 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia who was initially dispatched to quell such insurgency, so special – and so sadly unusual, recounting African-American history clearly from the perspective of an African-American filmmaker. Every frame of Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” drips with the knowledge of the narratives that have been presented in the culture before it, obviously the product of considerable research, but just as obviously deep consideration of where fictional recreation and even what’s commonly accepted as fact may be lacking.
Only moments into “Birth of a Nation,” Parker takes that narrative somewhere new, showing a scene that you’ve likely seen before, with Nat as a young child up late at night hiding as he sees a slave who attempts to run away be caught and forced down to his knees to be executed. However, in recreating a scenario that has long been relied upon to engender sympathy in such stories – with the virulent white men pulling the trigger without struggle, planting a seed of a revenge in the young boy that becomes his mission – Parker brilliantly reverses it by showing the slave turning the table on his captors, empowering Nat to be unafraid of those who oppress him. By changing the character’s motivation completely, Parker differentiates Nat from the start, a young African-American man not beholden to personal anger but rather a calling to right a wrong and giving him complete agency otherwise.
Every character in “Birth of a Nation” is given such forethought, treated as people first rather than defined by the roles they’ve been selected to play in an unjust system. The film is careful to rarely show African-Americans as being subservient, all but omitting the painful work in the fields or gratuitous bouts of cruel punishment that are typically par for the course, instead opting for scenes of the community that was built in the shadows, hosting weddings and taking solace in their shared religion, that ultimately trusts Turner to lead them in revolution. Even the plantation owners here are driven by desperation as opposed to some sort of sadism, giving them dimension that once again is rarely part of these narratives. This isn’t to say that Parker downplays the horrors of slavery – far from it – but in “Birth of a Nation,” where simply the way characters of different races look at each other says so much, no one is an object of pity – and thereby placing them at a remove, but rather fully-fleshed out human beings whose desire to be free of their circumstances can be shared with an audience, giving the film a crackling energy well before Turner takes up arms with his band of rebels.
While the film is eager to upend these notions of America’s most shameful period that have long been propagated by other movies, it is tradition-bound in its style, a soaring string score there to speak to its seriousness and though not without its poetic touches, largely straightforward visually, only occasionally rising to the boldness of its substance. As a director, Parker hasn’t yet mastered pacing, as some scenes run longer than they need to and the final revolt is handled in a way that likely isn’t quite as kinetic as it should be. Still, Parker is judicious in other ways, illuminating Turner’s inner thoughts with arresting images from his dreams and choosing just one truly vicious sequence to give an understanding of the dehumanizing depths of the era.
With a fresh set of eyes, Parker effortlessly brings this past into the present and although many films dealing with slavery are lauded as courageous and inspirational simply for being, with “Birth of a Nation,” he’s actually made one that is.
“The Birth of a Nation” will be released later this year by Fox Searchlight. It will play twice more at the Sundance Film Festival on January 29th at 8:30 pm at the Marc and January 30th at 9 am at the Library Center Theatre.