“Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever,” reads the epigraph at the beginning of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The ensuing two hours amply fulfill Thomas Jefferson’s anxious prophecy. Though taking its title from D. W. Griffith’s racist 1915 silent epic, which glamorized the Ku Klux Klan, Parker’s drama lionizes Nat Turner, who led an unsuccessful slave insurrection in Virginia in 1831. Even before the opening shot, The Birth of a Nation makes its ambitions clear. D. W. Griffith’s historical drama was both politically regressive and technically innovative. Nate Parker, in repurposing its name, promises a film that is both forceful social corrective and aesthetic achievement.
The Birth of a Nation is a singular and searing vision. Its historical context both weighs on and propels a narrative freighted with expectation. Nate Parker, directing, producing, writing, and starring, deftly navigates the tension between personal and social statement with an uncompromising film of strength and fury. But the film’s budget occasionally intrudes on the action: too few and too little are the battles in a story of armed rebellion. The fighting reaches neither the cathartic violence nor the tragic pain a recounting of Nat Turner demands. The Birth of a Nation, though fulfilling its promise of political critique, also fails to reach the high bar of aesthetic advancement set by its momentous framing.
Though cost limits the scope of the visual impact, the script is unconstrained with the soaring rhetoric of an angry God’s righteous fury. The film telegraphs its seriousness, but feels important enough to justify its aspirations. Nate Parker’s epic is sturdy enough not to buckle under its shortcomings. The Birth of a Nation is a bold statement. It aims to fundamentally restructure the creation myth of the United States. The implicit belief, that film can still matter, feels both nostalgic and daring.