Writer, director, and actor Nate Parker’s ambitious telling of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt is timely movie; it’s also a missed opportunity, a tepid tale hamstrung by Parker’s limited experience and the constraints of biopic filmmaking.
The title itself is an audacious bit of trolling, seeing that it is shared by D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic that brought cinematic storytelling huge steps forward when it wasn’t busy glorifying the KKK. Parker has described his film as a “counter-myth” designed as an anti-toxin to Griffith’s Southern jingoism. Unfortunately, Parker’s simplistic approach results in a heavy-handed Braveheart/The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc hybrid that often falls short of its ambitions.
As presented int eh move, Turner is a bright child taught to read the Bible by one of his owners (Penelope Ann Miller) and shielded from most of the deprivations of slavery for many years. When the plantation falls on hard times and his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), begins renting him out as a preacher to extol the “natural order” of slavery and keep the help in line. From there the movie exhibits an almost clockwork procession of brutality that causes Turner to lead a revolt and wreak bloody, Old Testament revenge on dozens of slave owners in a brief but bloody revolt.
Parker is fine as Turner, especially during the fire-and-brimstone sermonizing scenes; unfortunately his bias in starring in a film that he also wrote, co-produced, and directed shows throughout: His is the only fully realized character in a film otherwise populated with stock characters. Still, Parker can’t resist tweaking the man’s biography to present him as a warrior and prophet anointed as such as a child, turning him into the umpteenth “chosen one” it what devolves into a pseudo-historical revenge flick.
A more experienced and subtle director would have likely given The Birth of a Nation the dramatic heft that it needed. Parker can’t get beyond the basics of storytelling and his style — with the exception of a few choice shots — is simplistic, building to a climax that films constrained and underwhelming.
To be fair, there is conviction behind The Birth of a Nation, but there’s also a shallowness to it. It’s great that a movie about Nat Turner has finally been made; too bad it’s not a great movie.