Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” has never lost its capacity to spook. Sung in her high, thin contralto, the 1939 number depends on tension between her bemusement and the horror show scenario. Which was the point: lynchings were too common in the South and political leaders of both parties couldn’t pass legislation expanding the federal government’s jurisdiction — and had no interest in passing it. Late in The Birth of a Nation, “Strange Fruit” soundtracks a scene in which male and female slaves hang from magnolia trees. As lit by cinematographer Elliot Davis, the bodies look like Christmas ornaments. It’s too perfect, too beautiful. Repeatedly in The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker aestheticizes violence and avoids nuance as if it were a snake in the road. This account of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion is the kind of thing about which audiences will resort to the word “powerful” without much liking it — unless they’re fans of the vigilante pictures in whose lineage Parker’s film belongs.
Parker, who wrote the screenplay, endows revolt leader Nat Turner with Christ-like properties. Marked as a “child of god” in a scene set in the woods at night, Nat (Parker) drifts through a childhood at the Turner estate in Southampton County, Virginia until daughter Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), learning that Nat can sound out letters, takes an interest in the boy. Soon he can read the Bible and deliver orations to amused white audiences in church. His talent keeps the Turners from bankruptcy after a drought brings rumors of slave rebellions on other plantations; heir Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) gets paid for letting Nat preach to Biblical exhortations to obey masters and await heavenly reward. These visits remind Nat that however stern his master other slaves have got it worse. At one plantation the taskmaster shatters the teeth of a slave on a hunger strike.
That these supine slaves are forced to listen to the King James version’s palliatives at the point of a gun or the butt of a whip is an irony not lost on Nat. Aware that the Bible offers contradictory views of the proper relationship between master and servant, Nat and a local white preacher get into a verse-trading argument that’s the movie’s best written exchange. But the consequences are severe, for Samuel’s small kindnesses hide the sadism of a taskmaster who won’t see himself humiliated. Nat is whipped and left overnight tied to the post. At daybreak he has found his righteous cause, or, rather, in Parker’s view the righteous cause found its vessel in Nat. Soon, inspired by David of Bethlehem’s slaughter of the Amalekites, Nat and his slave brethren grab axes and shovels. what happens next haunted Southern elites for a generation.
An actor of modest ability who can glower at will, Nate Parker has been the beneficiary of exceptional good luck. Until reports emerged of his trial and acquittal of rape charges, he watched as his film became an awards season front runner. Parker does have talent: the first hour depicting Nat’s growing awareness of the trap he’s in has an assured rhythm. But the problem with The Birth of Nation is that being an awards season front runner is its ambition. Henry Jackman’s gross score echoes every Best Picture nominee that has trafficked in uplift; when in the morning after the whipping Nat manages to stand the music gets so loud that I thought Syria was attacking the theater. The Jesus Christ poses in which Parker indulges make clear that Parker subscribes to the Great Man theory of history; it’s easier to get compliments when the lead character you happen to be playing happens to be a better written part than anyone else within a meter’s radius (it has to be a fortuitous coincidence that Nat and Parker share names — I hope it is). With the exception of Aunjanue Ellis’s quiet work as Nat’s mother, the performances are stilted, as if no one bothered rehearsing Parker’s creaky dialogue. And the interstitial dream sequences or flashbacks or whatever they’re supposed to be with young Nat in a mud mask are phony poetry.
Worse, The Birth of a Nation shows little interest in what even Thomas Jefferson acknowledged was the degrading effects of slavery on everyone invested in its survival. The Birth of Nation extends its sympathy to the slave women forced to sleep with white masters, but sympathy isn’t the same as empathy; these women remain mute, whimpering, wronged creatures requiring avenging. From Parker and Davis’ insistence on filling the screen with Nat’s beautiful, progressively intense scowl the audience could be forgiven for thinking that the women exist to aggrandize Nat’s sense of destiny. Parker is the sort of artist who thinks angels — with wings! — best represent women. It smothers Aja Naomi King as Nat’s wife Cherry, a martyr to the cause.
Living among an alarming percentage of countrymen who still believe the Civil War was fought for “economic reasons,” I can appreciate another reminder of the mortal sin of slavery. However, equating displays of brutality with aesthetic honesty, The Birth of a Nation suggests nothing of nineteenth century black life exists outside of enslavement. Parker treats the Bible as first a tool to be used on credulous slaves, then as an Anarchist’s Cookbook for rebellion. An early sequence keyed to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” stirred me, one of The Birth of a Nation‘s rare fusions of community, religion, and art. This aside, there’s no sense that Parker understands the degree to which slaves found solace in the teachings of Christ; the movie doesn’t show how Christianity in its variegated paradoxes shaped their and the freedmen’s culture for a hundred years and beyond. And never mind the way in which spirituals and the blues absorbed the cadences of the King James translation. Parker wants to show Nat as Christ without illustrating how Christ was a culmination; for those who like their revenge hot and delicious imagine reading The Count of Monte Cristo and skipping the Edmond Dantès section.
Intended as a redress of the distortions in D.W. Griffith’s own 1915 masterwork, which for all its racism remains a deeply weird film, The Birth of a Nation‘s last minutes spell out how Nat Turner’s rebellion bore fruit in a couple decades. In a subtler and more historically conscious director the connection between Turner and the black soldiers who fought for the Union cause would be a bold and triumphant leap. With Parker staging its power vaporizes; he wants to rebuke Griffith by imitating ’90s Spielberg. I may underestimate the picture’s hold on the popular imagination. The last three years of tumult may have conditioned audiences — rightly, to some degree — into demanding a picture that wants to be seen as a call to arms. We’ll learn soon enough whether a revenge fantasy more reactionary than anything Don Siegel dreamed is up to the historical moment or if distributors will give contemporary depictions of black life such as the upcoming Moonlight the space they deserve (I wait in vain for the American Girlhood, for descendants of Killer of Sheep, and adore Ryan Coogler’s Creed). Parker’s The Birth of Nation is history written with a PR budget.