The Birth of a Nation does the easy work of repulsing the viewer against the cruelties of slavery and the vindictive nature of slaveowners. Within that framework, Turner and cowriter Jean McGianni Celestin find novel, if blunt, ways to find new horrors, particularly for slave women. Black characters such as Aja Naomi King’s Cherry and Gabrielle Union’s Esther are made to be sexually available for any and all white men, as readily dispensed by Samuel as hors d’oeuvres and post-dinner cigars. The film also finds room for the nuances of being a slave, a place where something as benign as a courteous favor towards whites is impossible as it both endears the slave to the master, and because the master cannot view the slave as being absent of an ulterior motive. The institution is shown to be debasing towards all involved, with even some of the masters understanding in their bones the wrongness of their actions and having to either drink copiously or contort themselves into philosophical knots to assuage their guilt.
Of course, recognizing the wrong of a thing and still engaging in it is no great virtue, a complication that Parker extends to the masters but not Turner and his cohort. Turner’s rebellion was indiscriminate in its dispensing of violence, though they did consciously avoid the houses of poor whites in a form of class solidarity. Women and children were killed, a complication that Parker and Celestin completely elide. Additionally, blacks who weren’t involved were indiscriminately killed in reprisals, and further restrictions on slaves and free blacks were instituted after the rebellion was put down. These are important wrinkles to this story, a story that Parker simplifies into noble charges and inspiring speeches and lines drawn between the rebellion and black soldiers in the Union army. Heroic slave narratives are well and good and necessary, but what does Parker owe to the truth of an important historical incident beyond the sandpaper he applies to the rough edges?
Plenty of historical fiction takes liberties with the facts. More extratextual criticism emerges from Parker’s and Celestin’s rape allegations from their college days, something they might’ve considered before making rape a critical aspect of their film. Turning Union’s Esther into a mute vehicle for suffering whose assault spurs men to action also could’ve used a second look. However, setting that aside doesn’t turn The Birth of a Nation into a strong film by the standards of its genre. Parker is quite good in the lead, providing himself with several opportunities for fire-and-brimstone speeches and fat tears welling up in his eyes. Outside of that, this film is one that has been made many times before. It follows the standard formula of uprising tales, except it spends far too much time on getting Nat to his breaking point. A film as old as Spartacus understood that being a slave is intrinsically untenable and kicks its rebellion off quickly. Parker had a chance to flesh out an event with big ramifications for American history and takes the path of least resistance, ensuring that another film about Nat Turner with grander goals won’t get made for the foreseeable future. C