Preacher, prophet, saint?
The Birth of a Nation, from writer-director-star Nate Parker, certainly presents its central character in the first two guises. The third is more of a question, and a controversial one at that. A biopic about Nat Turner—whose failed slave rebellion in 1831 Virginia led to the deaths of some 55 whites and (in retaliation) around 200 African-Americans—Parker’s film is told not only in historical and societal terms, but in blatantly religious ones. This is a fact-based slave drama, yet it’s also an act of Biblical exegesis, an exploration of how the same God-given text could be used by white slavers to justify their oppression and by black slaves to motivate their violent insurrection.
We first meet Turner as a child (Tony Espinosa), as he’s taken into the forest at night to be presented to a circle of elders. Noting a birthmark on his chest, they declare him to be a prophet. And, indeed, the boy is especially gifted. A preternatural reader, he is given a Bible by his mistress (Penelope Ann Miller) and grows up (now played by Parker) to be the plantation’s unofficial preacher. His message to his fellow slaves is mostly one of patience and endurance—”Wait on the Lord”—but that begins to change the longer he lives under the brutality of slavery. After a visit to a particularly horrific plantation, Turner’s take on Psalm 33:3—”Sing to him a new song”—has a new tenor, and he begins to read the Bible as a call for him to carry out God’s righteous wrath.
This is a fascinating way to frame Turner’s story, yet as executed by Parker, the strategy has its limits. Much of this is related to his performance, which consists largely of two modes. We see the quiet, docile slave, preaching appeasement, and we see the impassioned proclaimer of liberation theology. What we don’t really get is a sense of Turner’s internal transition from one to the other. There is an exception here that proves the rule, a noteworthy scene in which Turner is asked to say grace at his master’s dinner party. His words sound nice as they’re calmly spoken, but they also function as coded cries for freedom. There are layers to this moment and the performance, allowing us to sense the conflict within Turner’s own soul. Mostly, however, I felt The Birth of a Nation doing the exegesis rather than its lead character.
Certain images have a truly prophetic power.
Aesthetically, The Birth of a Nation is an unsettlingly handsome production, one that emphasizes the natural beauty of the American south as much as the inhuman cruelty that took place there. And there are certain images—including a vision Turner has in which an ear of corn that he’s holding suddenly begins bleeding like an open wound—that have a truly prophetic power. Another key formal choice Parker makes as director is to use the camera to emphasize the furtive, loaded glances shared between slaves, whether it’s between Turner and the plantation’s house slave (Roger Guenveur Smith) or the ones he shares with a new slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King), with whom Nat develops a romantic relationship. The movie is rightly rooted in the perspective of the oppressed.
That romantic relationship also proves problematic, however, as The Birth of a Nation strains to paint Turner as an idealized, noble hero, partly through her admiration. The lionizing is perhaps most egregious during the sequence in which he is whipped for no longer selling the company line, and left tied to a post overnight. Exhausted yet defiant, he struggles to stand, and the camera pans up his bare torso for what can only be described as a beefcake shot. I couldn’t help but think of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, in which a similar depiction of suffering instead chooses to emphasize Chiwetel Ejiofor’s toes desperately squishing in the mud, as he struggles to stand upright with a noose around his neck. That’s an image made of sickening reality; The Birth of a Nation, at times, provides images more fitting for the the Marvel cinematic universe.
Parker also makes a curious choice with the camera in the movie’s final moments, at Turner’s execution by hanging. Rather than drop the floor out from under him, the executioner pulls a rope to lift him by the neck off the ground. The camera rises along with his anguished face, so that the moment feels at once like a terrible death and a great victory. (Sound familiar?) There is a segue that follows which I won’t give away, except to say that I found it to be a far more compelling creative decision. Some will undoubtedly read the end of The Birth of a Nation as the canonization of a saint, but I see it as a suggestion that Turner’s story—as vicious as it was—is part of a larger, ongoing spiritual struggle. Indeed, a struggle that continues to this day.