For the longest time, it seemed America’s dark history with slavery was not on Hollywood’s to-do list. Then, in 2012 and 2013, we were hit with two gritty, unblinking looks at slavery in 19th century America: Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave. These films seemed to perfectly coincide with, if not usher in, a new chapter in the modern debate regarding African-American civil rights.
Nate Parker’s 2016 Birth of a Nation shares its name, subject matter but little else with D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 epic; a film that spewed such horrifically racist propaganda that it resulted in the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan. Far from being a remake, this 2016 film instead tells the story of Nat Turner, the real-life slave and preacher who led a slave rebellion against the ruling white class in Virginia in 1831. Somehow, instead of depicting the birth of a nation, this 2016 flick just ends up depicting the birth of a new clichéd movie-genre.
Somehow, after just two other movies, Birth of a Nation 2016 manages to make the genre of gritty American slavery films feel formulaic, and even goes on to establish standard tropes for the genre: Inbred-looking white characters dropping n-bombs; black characters saying ‘Yes suh’; long shots of cotton fields; Horrific torture scenes; The obligatory white character who feels bad for the slaves; Tons of bible scripture… The set, the costume-design, even the characters feel ripped straight from Django Unchained. Even the violence in the film feels Tarantino-esque. Countless bottles of ketchup are splattered as blood explodes out the back of heads with a single shot from 19th-century pistols.
The film also seems to think that the audience requires 90 minutes (out of a 120-minute film) of exposition in order to justify the massacre of the white ruling class. The film hits you with justification after justification for the killing. Just when you think the film can’t throw any more justification at you (spoiler alert) Grandma dies! It’s bordering on parody.
Parker delivers a competent performance as Turner, but the rest of the acting falls flat and it’s easy to see why. Parker does a triple threat on Birth of a Nation – directing, writing and starring in the film – and he insists on keeping the camera firmly squared on himself. As a result, the rest of the characters fail to get the screen time necessary to flesh out their characters or to give any memorable performances. Parker also attempts to include a spiritual element to the film, both Christian and African, but this proves to be only skin-deep. Rather than exploring the real Nat Turner’s borderline Messiah complex, the director instead splices in a bit of angelic choral music and some indigenous African drumming. The rest of the time, the soundtrack comprises of lifeless orchestral pomp and swell, the kind one associates with Oscar-fodder of the early 2000s.
Ultimately the most puzzling aspect of Birth of a Nation is its message; rather than making a film on Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson, men who attempted to promote equal civil rights by peaceful means, Parker instead decided to make a film about Nat Turner, a far bloodier and more violent figure in African-American history. The question is: why? Is this supposed to be indicative of the current mental state of African-American civil rights activists? Is violence the only way we can achieve equality? The film would seem to think so, and certainly doesn’t prompt the audience to ask themselves whether this violence really achieved anything.
Of course, it is very much possible that this film is meant to be an ironic piece of propaganda, subtlety mocking the 1915 original. Just as the original Birth of a Nation attempted to validate violence against African-Americans, it’s possible that this film is doing the converse, attempting to validate violence against white Americans. This could very much be the case as Parker explicitly cherry-picks his facts in the film: the director ignores the (arguably) far more important role of the abolitionists who actually brought about the end of slavery; the real-life killing of women and children at the hands of the slaves is not included; and for some reason, Parker decides to include a fictional rape scene of which there is no record. Unfortunately, even if the film were a piece of cynical propaganda, this wouldn’t save the film. If, for a moment, you separate the horrific racist propaganda from the 1915 original, you are still left with a film that technically and aesthetically pushed the boundaries of what cinema was capable of. If you do the same with Parker’s Birth of a Nation, you are left with two hours of clichéd storytelling, cardboard cut-out characters, and an unclear overall message.
On a broader level, 2016’s Birth of a Nation fails to say anything new about African-American civil rights. There is nothing here you haven’t seen in Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave or Roots. On a smaller level, the film is a missed opportunity. Turner’s story is a truly fascinating one, and one that was begging for a big-screen adaptation, but unfortunately comes attached here to a lacklustre film. Such a pity.