Birth of a Nation fails to effectively tell its story on several fundamental levels. It is an inept execution of a concept that was weak to begin with.
The Birth of a Nation is a dramatic retelling of the Nat Turner (Nate Parker, who also writes and directs) slave revolt in 1831, which lasted two days and claimed the lives of 60 white people. Turner teaches himself to read at a young age, and instead of immedaitely murdering him, his owners give him a Bible, and he grows up to deliver sermons for his fellow slaves. Instead of portraying him as a crazy person who thought God talked to him, the film has young plantation owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who grew up alongside Nat, pimping him out as a black preacher to other plantation owners who think he can calm their slaves down. Nat Turner is exposed to groups of slaves in worse and worse conditions over the course of the film, and he eventually snaps and leads a rebellion.
The editing in Birth of a Nation is atrocious throughout. The effect is pronounced in the beginning and closing sequences, when both the should-be beginning and ending of several shots are clipped. Shots start and finish with their subjects in mid-motion. The result is a couple of massively confusing sequences that could have been clear by adding about 10 seconds each.
While the weak editing is less obvious in some sequences, it remains a crippling issue because the film as a whole is poorly structured and ends up relying on editing even more than most movies. The film rarely stays in one place for more than a few minutes, sometimes jumping miles at a time from shot to shot within the same scene. Any time at all the script calls for a situation to remain unchanged for a little while, it devolves immediately into a boring “things happened” montage. The film meanders drunkenly from plot point to plot point instead of having what you’d call a real story.
Most of the blame should probably be laid at Parker’s feet as a first-time writer. It looks like he didn’t know how to handle time skips or how to write a full scene of dialogue.
The aesthetic of this film feels stale after Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, far superior films which I’m pretty sure Birth of a Nation recycled sets from, and that could well be this film’s most noticeable problem. If 12 Years a Slave was Django with all the fun cut out, Birth of a Nation is Django with all the fun and all the quality cut out. A harsh slave-perspective movie about America’s past would ostensibly be more relevant now in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, but the film doesn’t do much to tie slavery to the present climate.
The real shame is that all of the story elements are there to make a powerful, well-structured movie. The basic story is that Turner lives in relative comfort for a slave, but is taken to other, harsher plantations to preach and realizes that life isn’t so swell after all.
So instead of having a strict linear narrative, establish his backstory in the first five minutes — not the first 20 — and give the movie a vignette structure. Each new plantation he goes to preach at accounts for 10-20 minutes as the film actually delves into the crimes being committed there and then actually shows Turner preaching instead of just montages. In the first visit, show him rehearsing a sermon entirely about how slaves must serve their masters without question, but then show him adjusting and softening the sermon when he sees the conditions of the plantation’s slaves. Then the second trip, he sees even more abuses, and he adjusts his sermon a little more. This goes on until he finally realizes that even if he isn’t treated this way, the fact that he could be is just as much a violation.
This structure would fix another major problem with the film — we only once get to see Turner preach. Birth of a Nation really isn’t a religious film as much as it has a deeply religious character in it, and actually getting to see him preach — it’s your main character’s primary calling in life, you’d think someone would realize it should be more of a focus — would put religious questions into the spotlight in a more real way and measure it against the heinous extremes of American Slavery. Getting to see Turner wrestle with those crazy justifications would also help connect it more to the present-day Black Lives Matter movement.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, intern at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.