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Turns out 'The Birth of a Nation' is not great or bad but merely flawed

Nate Parker's once-praised, now controversial Nat Turner biopic has more right to it than wrong.
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    Armie Hammer, left, plays the owner of the plantation that houses Nate Parker's Na|Fox Searchlight

‘The Birth of a Nation’
Director:
Nate Parker
Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The inconvenient truth about Nate Parker’s Nat Turner movie is that it’s neither masterpiece nor dog. The latter would be the easy outcome: If it was overpraised bunk, we wouldn’t have to deal with the discomfort of separating art from artist, like we do with Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. We wouldn’t have to make the ethically slippery argument that one should be able to judge, even praise and pelt with awards, a work made by someone with, shall we say, personal demons. We could pounce on it without regret — except for the nagging fact that it was borne out of peerless nobility and could even play a key role in medicating an ailing country. A great movie that becomes a hit can, after all, change the culture.

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Instead “The Birth of a Nation” is somewhere in the middle, though closer to good: a movie that gets more right than it does wrong, that has much to admire beyond it being a movie about Nat Turner released at a time when we need a frank and fiery film about race in America — when we need a movie that so reclaims history that it steals its title from a movie that ends with the KKK saving the day. Its biggest crimes are quiet and subtle, and maybe exacerbated by the skeleton that lurked right there on Parker’s Wikipedia page, which was dragged out by the filmmaker himself. It’s often amateur hour, which is to be expected (first-time filmmaker, an understandably low budget for a film Hollywood would never make). It skips over certain details that would have made its climactic rabble rouser that much more galvanizing. It’s sloppy at the times it needs to be precise.

And yet. The foundation is strong, and the movie often works in practice, although sometimes only in theory. “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” both advanced and complicated the slavery movie, whereas Parker has made an old school Great Man biopic. Of course, that’s subversive, too: He’s erected a cinematic statue to a figure who’s technically a mass murderer — who didn’t spare women and children in his desecration of the South — but is nonetheless a hero. In other, less defensible ways, his movie’s very modern. Parker turns Turner into two kinds of franchise hero: the “chosen one,” destined to save his people and become more myth than man, and a superhero scoring his own origin story.

As such, we see an account, mildly fudged, of the why of Nat Turner. Played in adulthood by Parker himself, Nat lives on a relatively — very, very relatively — humane plantation. His owner, Sam (Armie Hammer), is depicted as Nat’s childhood friend, and he doesn’t always treat him like mere property. A man-child/rich kid with aspirations for high society (but also a drinking problem), Sam only beats or loans out his slaves when his arm is twisted, or if he wants to make the right impression on his far more sadistic neighbors. He’s like Benedict Cumberbatch’s reluctant plantation-owner in “12 Years a Slave,” only handled better: Parker includes Sam’s softer sides (which Sam brags about) but only so he can show they don’t excuse his actions. When Sam winds up Nat’s first victim in his climactic melee, the scene is ugly — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t just.

Parker is even better when touching on religion. Much of the middle half shows Nat, taught to read at an early age, loaned out by Sam to neighboring plantations, where he recites Bible verse to bring calm and hope to slaves. But there’s the rub: Nat’s only allowed to do it because his hosting owners think their property is about to revolt and they need to be fed comforting lies. Nat’s being used, and as he realizes this, he also realizes that the same book he holds as literal gospel boasts passages that condone the very practices keeping him and his race in chains. Parker, a devout Christian, shows Nat contending with the mixed, contradictory messages offered within the Holy Book, of freedom and oppression.

These are smart touches that add to a rich film. That might even forgive it the parts where its insufficiently complex, the parts where it lacks needed nuance. The pace doesn’t exactly speed up as Nat decides to turn into a vicious rebel leader, but it still feels rushed. It hardly conveys descriptions of him after he was caught: that he was so traumatized and angered that he’d become borderline robotic, terrifying. If anything, Nat is too nice — a character with whom all audiences can still identify. The stiff filmmaking can be forgiven by circumstances, even Nat’s TBN-level divine visions, boasting angels with wings that look like they were bought during an after-Halloween sale at the closest Rite Aid. But it’s disappointing that a film with a clear eye on violence features Nat facing down a hissable slave tracker (Jackie Earle Haley), who only exists so he can be killed triumphantly during the grand finale — a traditional fit of bloodlust for the cheapest seats.

Most shocking of all, Parker is merely adequate as Nat Turner. He’s a very fine actor, great at portraying quiet, even remote thoughtfulness. But his Nat Turner is sometimes too opaque, less passionate than merely there, coming to life only when he finally turns fiery. Honestly, that describes “The Birth of a Nation,” too. After all that’s transpired since its Sundance triumph, the truth is it’s not a game changer, not a new kind of movie about slavery, not even a film that may change minds or piss off the Breitbarts. It’s merely good.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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