In one of the few clever directorial flourishes from Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a young Nat Turner, a slave on a Virginia plantation, sees the white mistress, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), of his household leave a book on the back of her rocking chair before heading indoors. A POV shot of the child slave noticing the book cuts to a shot of the boy running back to his parents’ quarters and, then, a final shot that returns to the chair to find it gently rocking, the book now gone. When the lady of the house discovers his literacy, it’s only her fascination with his ostensibly rare intelligence that saves his life. The sequence of the child’s boldness to steal a book, just so he can read, is arguably more rife with a sense of genuine defiance and danger than the portrayal of the adult Turner’s (Parker) shepherding of a slave revolt throughout Southampton County, Virginia.
Parker, a first-time director, opts for compositions that alternate between self-consciously beautiful landscapes depicting slaves suffering in cotton fields and endless close-ups of Turner’s face. Early on, these close-ups trace the man’s relative contentment with his life as he preaches to other slaves, who aren’t treated with the same degree of respect. But when Turner begins to preach pro-slavery gospel on other plantations on a money-making scheme by his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), the shots of his sermons reveal first his splintering calm, then his mounting rage. The problem with these shot patterns, besides their aesthetic tedium, is that they persistently convey that Turner is the only character who matters in the film, which deprioritizes the collective action he inspired. What makes Turner, along with similar rebel leaders, such a crucial historical figure is that he proved that slaves weren’t mostly docile save for a few rogue agents, but instead primed for insurrection if only given the right push.
The Birth of a Nation’s narrowed scope recalls that of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which similarly backgrounded the paramount relevance of its setting to tell an easily digestible, easily satisfying revenge tale. This Turner isn’t a vision-struck zealot who believes that revolt is God’s calling for him; instead, he’s a savvy but meek man ultimately driven around the bend when his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), falls prey to a group of patrolling slave catchers. By tying the rebel’s rage to a direct action instead of the ideology that prompted it, the film bizarrely sanitizes the man. The real Turner was willing to kill men, women, and children to purge the world of a hate he identified as sin, but his cinematic avatar is softened, turned into a wronged man whose motive can appeal to the broadest possible audience.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.