It's impossible for me not to admire the audacity of The Birth of a Nation's title. Nate Parker's film about the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion, the biggest slave uprising to that point in U.S. history, reclaims the title of D.W. Griffith's landmark 1915 feature about "heroic" Klansmen. And why did it take 100 years for someone to do this? It could have something to do with the lack of black filmmakers working in Hollywood.
Parker also stars as Turner, who is singled out as a child for his burgeoning reading skills and trained as a preacher to help pacify other slaves on his plantation and, eventually, elsewhere. This gives him an even broader tour of injustice, cruelty, and evil than he was already privy to as a slave, and it stokes the fires of his rebellion.
As reductive as it might sound to compare a movie about slavery to another pair of movies about slavery, Birth of a Nation inevitably brings to mind both 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained: the visceral historical drama of the former married to the bloody revenge of the latter (albeit here more real than revisionist). That in turn makes it hard to avoid how much less accomplished Birth is as a film. To 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen brought a long-take clarity that stared the inhumanity and evil of this practice in the face, understanding its characters' powerlessness, powered by an unimpeachably great bunch of performances. To Django, Tarnantino brought his Inglourious Basterds knack for making pulp feel as vital and vivid as history, and if it's one of his weaker films overall — indebted for the first time to his past triumphs — it still has any number of indelible images, performances, and sequences.
Parker doesn't bring as much to the table. He gives a fierce performance as Turner (his sermons are captivating), and some of that fierceness carries over to his behind-the-scenes role as director, writer, and producer; there is passion in this passion project, and lyricism in his following shots of a young Turner running through woods. And the movie does manage some cold, hard truths: Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), Nat's owner, is a comparably fair-minded master — that is, until he isn't. This inevitable turn functions as an unspoken rebuke to the disturbing "actually, many slaves had it pretty good" narrative, and Hammer gives a nuanced performance as a man who might have had it in him to be decent, but surrenders helplessly to his family history.
But Parker and Hammer are the only actors who get real characters to play; Turner's wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is more prop than person, and a slave hunter played by Jackie Earle Haley is appropriately loathsome, but his cartoon villainy seems designed to "make it personal" in the style of a hackneyed action movie. Parker sometimes flails around in search of poetry (why is the ear of corn bleeding?) and his staging rarely dimensionalizes the characters or externalizes Turner's struggle. As on its way to an important event that lasts only a few days, the film often maintains the rhythm of a broad-strokes biopic, seemingly as a default. It will take a graceful step, then two or three clumsy ones, and repeat.
Yet this is a powerful movie, more so than it's a particularly good one. Parker's Birth of a Nation arguably performs an operation inverse to the "original" work. Griffith's film offered formal leaps in cinematic technique to tell a vile, hateful story; Parker's film is less formally accomplished (compared to some of its cinematic siblings, not just Griffith), but the story it tells has too much vitality to ignore. In its way, it's a testament to the power of cinema: From the fog of its weaker characters and wispy plotting and lack of powerhouse sequences, strong images emerge anyway, independent of great scenes and charged with righteousness. The final cut jumps some decades ahead from 1831, drawing a line through history that's at once obvious and rousing. It more than earns its title.