It doesn’t happen too often but every once in a while there’s a situation where two movies that aren’t remakes of one another or anything will share a title for one reason or another. For example, there are two movies called Twilight, not so much because one movie was leeching off another but more likely because Stephenie Meyer just hadn’t seen or heard of that 1998 Paul Newman/Gene Hackman thriller when she named her YA series. Other times it’s less a matter of not knowing about a previous work so much as it’s a matter of not caring. For instance, when Ridley Scott is making a mega-budgeted movie about Roman gladiators he’s probably not going to give up on his preferred title just because there was already a somewhat obscure boxing movie called Gladiator just eight years earlier. Occasionally I’m sure this practice leads to some video store confusion (god help the people who got more than they bargained for when they tried to rent the Oscar winning race relations drama and went home with a David Cronenberg movie about car crash fetishists) but for the most part only the most anal of people tend to even notice this sort of thing. Of course every once in a while the reuse of a title isn’t an accident and isn’t meant to be something people aren’t going to notice, sometimes it’s a deliberate comment on the previous work and that very much seems to be what’s going on with the new film The Birth of a Nation, which appears to be a rather intentional attempt to “take back” the title of D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist / highly innovative 1915 epic of the same name.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is not a retelling of that now one hundred year old film and is actually set a good thirty years before the events of that film (which starts with the Civil War and goes through reconstruction). Rather, this new The Birth of a Nation is set more or less from the beginning on the 19th century up through 1831 and focuses in on the life of the famous slave rebellion leader Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker himself). The film begins with a young Nat Turner learning how to read, despite his owner’s reservations, and having this buoyed on by his owner’s wife/future owner’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) who has Turner study the bible extensively. Twenty years later an Adult Nat Turner now acts as a preacher for the slaves on the plantation while working on the cotton fields otherwise, and eventually his current owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) devises a scheme where he’d have Nat “tour” other plantations and preach subservience to the various slaves on each of them. As he sees plantation after plantation and witnesses more and more suffering on his own plantation Turner becomes increasingly angry about the constant suffering that he’s surrounded by and begins to plan for a violent rebellion for freedom.
Making a movie about someone like Nat Turner certainly takes balls. Turner was not a figure like Martin Luther King who managed to achieve great change through something as noble as passive resistance, but then again he was also completely cut off from all the “civilized” channels resistance. He couldn’t pass around a petition, he couldn’t write a letter to his congressperson, he couldn’t boycott anything, and he couldn’t march on Washington. Parker however seems less interested in wrestling with the gray areas of this situation than in viewing Turner’s rebellion into an act of heroic martyrdom. In its structure and outlook the film has been compared to Braveheart but the closer analogue may actually be Kubrick’s Spartacus which actually was about a failed slave rebellion, albeit in a very different time and place. Parker’s film lacks the epic scope and substantial production values of those two movies but it’s similar to both in the way it builds up its protagonist as this uniquely strong and noble figure whose very passion for freedom propels the people he leads into the fray of battle.
For all the film’s passion, I don’t know that it makes a particularly ironclad argument for Nat Turner’s heroism or for the importance on the rebellion he started. It’s not that I have any qualms about the fact that this slave army killed white slave owners (fuck those people, they can burn in hell) or even that his rebellion killed women and children along the way (war is messy, what are you going to do), but I do think he bears some responsibility for the fact that his actions got a lot of innocent slaves and freemen killed both in the rebellion itself and by the white retaliations that occurred after the fact, all in service of a rebellion that failed within 48 hours and didn’t really accomplish much of anything directly other than an immediate sense of cathartic vengeance and maybe a little bit of “died with their boots on” bombast from the rebellion’s participants. Perhaps that makes him the perfect hero for the Jill Stein/Bernie or Bust fringe of this political moment but is this really a victory in the grand scheme of things? The ending of the movie would suggest that Turner’s ultimate victory was in his legacy, in the way he inspired future generations of black men to fight for their freedom, but that argument strikes me as a bit tenuous. Parker would perhaps have been better served arguing that Turner was fighting less out of a belief that his rebellion would succeed and more out of a desire to strike fear in the hearts of slaveholders and show that there’s a price for holding people in bondage… but that combined with Turner’s religious fervor would arguably make him a terrorist, and that is a level of complication that the film probably isn’t too interested in exploring.
Of course when I watch the aforementioned Braveheart and Spartacus I certainly don’t spend this much time pondering whether or not the failed rebellions in either were “worth it,” why is that? Well part of it may simply be that those rebellions lasted well over 48 hours and in the movies didn’t feel like such doomed enterprises from the beginning. Also, those movies didn’t really claim to be smart social commentary so much as they were excuses to stage epic battle scenes. On that point I’d also point out that both of those movies are well made enough to distract from such inconveniences and while The Birth of a Nation isn’t badly made per se it certainly isn’t the work of a master filmmaker. Elliot Davis’ cinematography is functional, but looks a bit cheap and not overly confident, as if it doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be stylistic or natural and I really couldn’t stand the movie’s score by Henry Jackman, which overplays the movie’s uplift in all the most cliché ways possible. The performances are also all fine but unexceptional. I feel like everyone in the cast is being asked to play a lot of their roles with rather broad strokes, none the least Parker himself who is never quite able to capture his character’s gradual transformation from “loyal servant” to violent rebel and seems generally unwilling to explore some of the less noble aspects of the character’s religious fervor.
Having finally seen the movie I kind of think the critics at Sundance maybe did the movie a bit of a disservice by hyping it up so much. The movie is certainly a fairly noble effort but it’s hardly the first or the best movie about slavery and I don’t think it holds a candle to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. That movie was the real deal and deserved every bit of the praise it got in 2013, I think it’s a lot more mature than this and also just generally a better made in every way. Then again I can also see why this would have stood out amongst all the movies about mumbley Brooklynites that were likely circulating in Park City and it also stands out among the action movies and comedies that are getting wide releases more often than not. It’s a movie that’s worth seeing both to be part of the conversation and to see a lot of the clear passion on the screen, but the Oscar buzz was premature.