Back in August, I wrote that renewed attention to the fact that as college students Nate Parker and Jean Celestin had been tried on charges of rape might have a paradoxical effect. “The Birth of a Nation” met with rapturous reaction and a record sale price at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, as it became clear that the Oscars would, once again, be overwhelmingly white. This scrutiny of the two men’s past — Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted, but his case was not retried after a successful appeal — cleared space to treat the movie not as an artifact that might save Hollywood from its own racist history, but simply as a film.
And as a movie, separate from the sound and bidding fury that surrounded it nine months ago, there’s not much to “The Birth of a Nation.” The film’s ideas about both faith and violence are as weak as the pale light that colors the movie, like an Instagram filter chosen hastily for a distant, antiqued effect. (In many scenes, this has the effect of washing out the actors’ skin, making them appeal paler; it’s a choice that sits uneasily in a film that’s supposed to be about the uglinesses of slavery, among them the idea that lighter skin is more attractive than darker skin.) For all its supposed power of revelation, “The Birth of a Nation” is occasionally squeamish and often shallow.
Parker told the critic Alissa Wilkinson that Turner’s Christianity drew him powerfully to this particular piece of history: “He was put into a position where he had to ask himself if God was real. If he was called to lead, then how would he react to the subjugation that he felt daily — not only towards himself, but to others that looked like him around him?”
But whatever passion Parker felt for Turner’s faith journey, it doesn’t translate. “The Birth of a Nation” sketches Turner’s relationship to both Christianity and African spirituality in terms that are thin to the point of rickety.
The choice to jump forward from early scenes of Turner’s education under the tutelage of one of his owners, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), to his adulthood picking cotton and preaching to his fellow slaves, means we don’t get much sense of slaveholding theology. Later in the film, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), Turner’s boyhood friend-turned-failing plantation owner, rents Turner out to a series of increasingly cruel and corrupt white men who want a black man to preach a Gospel of submission to their own slaves.
But these scenes, in which white characters treat Christianity as a crude and opportunistic tool of their trade, doesn’t quite capture the extent to which slavery and Christianity became intertwined even for white people who were sincerely devout. Elizabeth may not be as violent or harsh as a plantation owner who chisels out the teeth of a slave who is on hunger strike in order to force-feed the man. But Christianity still bolstered her sense of racial superiority, her sense that domination was actually a form of stewardship and her choice not to allow Turner to develop all of his intellectual gifts.
And in the absence of a clear and sophisticated sense of theology, Turner’s own spiritual journey feels rather basic. First, he preaches the Gospel as a source of comfort; later, the cruelty he witnesses renders that impossible. He and a white preacher, Rev. Zalthall (“Sons of Anarchy” veteran Mark Boone Jr.), spit competing verses at each other. When Turner organizes his fledgling conspiracy, he tells his early recruits that the Bible is a contradictory document. Christian viewers — really, viewers of any faith or none at all — deserve something more sophisticated than these Sunday School-level realizations.
In particular, “The Birth of a Nation” would be a stronger movie for any sort of attempt to look at Christianity as specifically practiced by slaves. There are all sorts of visual cues to African spirituality, from an initiation ritual Turner experiences as a child early in the movie, to the cowry shells Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), wears at their wedding, to the specific carvings on the cross that marks a grave. But “The Birth of a Nation” doesn’t do anything to look at how these different belief systems might have locked onto one another, or how they might have influenced Turner’s visions, which are crudely and cheaply rendered. A movie about a religious crusade requires more than a bleeding ear of corn, an obscured angel and a specter that looks a lot like “Star Wars” villain Emperor Palpatine skulking around Hampton Roads. “The Birth of a Nation” would be a better movie if it were a more specifically apocalyptic one.
And speaking of apocalyptic, “The Birth of a Nation” was heralded for bringing unprecedented cruelty to its depictions of slavery, but it alternates between unflinching and squeamish.
The force-feeding scene is undeniably horrifying, but “The Birth of a Nation” becomes oddly coy during two rape scenes that are meant to be pivotal in Turner’s development as a revolutionary. In one, Cherry is raped by Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley, whose presence in a movie has become shorthand for malevolence), the slave catcher who killed Turner’s father, and his gang: The film cuts away before any of them even touch her and returns to the sight of her battered face. In the other, a guest of Samuel Turner’s demands a night with Esther (Gabrielle Union, who doesn’t speak a word in the movie; the waste of such an actress is a serious artistic offense). Again, the assault stays safely off-screen.
There are strong defenses of avoiding such scenes, which if poorly shot and directed can become hopelessly muddled. But “The Birth of a Nation” is arriving in theaters in the shadow of Steve McQueen’s outstanding “12 Years a Slave.” In that film, slave owner Edwin Epps’s (Michael Fassbender) repeated rapes of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) were wrenching and degrading, but they also gave us deep insight into Patsey’s misery. By contrast, in “The Birth of a Nation,” rape is all about men: Nat, and Hark (Colman Domingo, phenomenal and phenomenally under-used), Esther’s husband, who becomes one of Nat’s first recruits. (This isn’t even to mention the way “The Birth of a Nation” turns a slave auction into “a meet-cute,” as the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham puts it.)
We know Hark and Will (Chiké Okonkwo), a survivor of the plantation with the force-feedings, almost entirely by the violence they experience. That’s a shame, and ultimately it means that “The Birth of a Nation” gives the violence Turner and his followers committed relatively shallow ethical treatment. In an affecting scene, Turner vomits after he kills Samuel in the first act of the uprising. But because it’s not clear whether Hark, Will and others share Turner’s specific Christian beliefs, or whether they are motivated primarily by revenge — Will does ask for the privilege of killing his tormentors himself — the film’s treatment of the rebellion’s violence is facile.
“The Birth of a Nation” includes the deaths of women and children as part of a larger montage. And at two separate moments in the film, shattered skulls — one black, one white — are framed more like abstract objects than the remains of human beings. If “The Birth of a Nation” were as brave a movie as it claims to be, it might linger longer on Turner’s commitment to annihilation and make a real defense of it. Similarly, if exposing white brutality were truly the film’s purpose, it might show us what white Southerners did to Turner’s body rather than explaining it in text.
The impulse to protect vulnerable people and vulnerable bodies and the impulse to reveal the full depth of hidden horror are both powerful and important artistic imperatives, but “The Birth of a Nation” can’t quite confront the tension between them. Minor characters can be tortured on-screen, while Turner’s mortification is obscured.
As the Undefeated’s Soraya McDonald wrote in a great, tough piece about “The Birth of a Nation,” “This awards season doesn’t have to be about the presence or absence of Parker and his film, thanks to the work of Barry Jenkins’ exquisite meditation on black masculinity, tales of love in times of prejudice from Ruth Negga, David Oyelowo and Amma Asante, and the exuberant joy of Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer….There are options.”
Maybe the critics who exclaimed over “The Birth of a Nation” — or Fox Searchlight, which bought the film at a moment when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was failing to recognize the work of a director like Ryan Coogler — saw something in Parker’s film that simply didn’t register with me. But there’s something circular and queasy at work here. “The Birth of a Nation” is a movie about a man whose sense of his own calling led him to pursue a vision he couldn’t possibly fulfill. It was made by a man whose sense of himself as a messenger was at odds with his own personal history. And it has been embraced as a token of enlightenment at the cost of hyping a movie in ways the film couldn’t stand up to.