The title of a film can speak volumes long before trailers and advance buzz find their way to the internet. Some movie titles seem to be the product of corporate marketing teams vying for the attention of a targeted demographic. Others suggest the quirky personal vision of an independent-minded filmmaker. The title of Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation — a biopic of Nat Turner, leader of the historic 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia — is intended as a bold act of defiance.
As anyone who took a film history class remembers, The Birth of a Nation is the name of cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith's 1915 Civil War epic, a towering work that established many of the methods and techniques still used today to tell stories on film. Griffith's film also portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force (among many other distortions) and helped inspire the Klan's 1920s resurgence in the South. By reclaiming the title, first-time writer-director Parker, who is black, finally pushes aside the false history of Griffith's film and gives credit for social progress where it's long overdue.
With The Birth of a Nation, Parker also reclaims a figure central to American history in Nat Turner. The story of Turner's slave rebellion largely has been written by white observers and historians with their own interpretations of events, often without benefit of much verifiable detail. To write his screenplay, Parker immersed himself in the best available historical research and came away with a vision of Turner as a universal black hero — a thoughtful and deeply religious man whose will to act surely hastened the arrival of emancipation some 35 years later.
For Parker, who not only wrote and directed the film but stars as Turner, getting The Birth of a Nation made in today's blockbuster-driven Hollywood constitutes a major success. It's an urgent and intermittently powerful retelling of a story everyone should know. That said — and notwithstanding the film winning the top prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival — it's hard to see The Birth of a Nation as a great film.
Parker's slow-and-steady movie suffers from issues that often plague biopics of whatever pedigree or scale. It begins with Turner's early life as a gifted child taught to read and write by one of his owners, proceeds to his life as a preacher and moves on to experiences of slavery that inspire a deadly rebellion. This too-linear approach to Turner's story, punctuated predictably by mounting atrocities, undercuts scenes that should have retained full emotional impact.
Familiar from appearances in mostly independent films like Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer and David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Parker's charismatic presence is a nice match for Turner's story. Shot by cinematographer Elliot Davis (Out of Sight), the film has a stark, high-contrast beauty meant to distance it from sepia-toned visions of days gone by. But when Parker reaches for art in the form of blunt symbolism — as in the sudden appearance of a bleeding ear of corn — it seems he might have done better to launch his career as a director with a less ambitious project.
For all its flaws, The Birth of a Nation couldn't appear more timely as racially charged conflicts dominate daily news feeds. Parker's film provides fresh insight on our shared history in hopes of supporting social progress today. It's hard to find fault with that.