Director: Nate Parker
Screenwriter: Nate Parker
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, and Jackie Earle Haley
The American slave narrative is perhaps the most important historical literary genre to ever emerge. These narratives did more to reverse the tide of the American slavery institution than any politician, public speaker, or legislation ever did. The first-hand accounts of the horrors of slavery introduced an increasingly ignorant American population to the indecent, inhuman, and insane practices that destroyed the lives of nearly 13 million Africans over a period of about 350 years. The importance of this genre certainly explains American cinema’s fascination. Thousands of movies exist that document various aspects of this tumultuous time in American history, and one such film that is also widely considered to mark the birth of modern American cinema was a 1915 film titled, The Birth of a Nation. This film was hugely successful in its day, but it was also moderately controversial. Over the years, its controversy has only risen due to the film’s inclusion of white men in blackface playing Black characters and the heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, the film was a technical achievement and sent director D.W. Griffith off to a successful career in Hollywood. Now, 100 years later, we have another film titled The Birth of a Nation, and it is by no means an accident. Writer/Director Nate Parker looks to not only give the cinematic treatment to the story of Nat Turner, but also use this story to symbolically update antiquated ideas by deliberately sharing its title with the 1915 film. Parker is more successful at one of these goals than the other.
The Birth of a Nation opens in the early 1800s where a young Nathaniel Turner (Tony Espinosa), born into slavery survives the day-to-day life on the Turner Plantation in Southampton County, Va. Nathaniel is mostly shielded from the real nastiness of slavery as he befriends young Samuel Turner (Griffin Freeman), son of plantation owners Benjamin (Danny Vinson) and Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). Elizabeth even takes Nat in for reading lessons and introduces him to the Bible, which would eventually inspire him to preach. However, as Nat (now played by Nate Parker) and Sam (now played by Armie Hammer) grow up on the plantation, the divisions of White and Black lives becomes increasingly clear and by the time Sam inherits the plantation, the division is crystal. By the late 1820s, times are tougher on plantations. Plantation owners have become ruthless towards their slaves and the mistreatment and cruelty begins to take its toll on plantation productivity. Things are marginally better on the Turner plantation, but Sam can see the writing on the wall. When a white preacher, Tom Proctor (E.T. Brantley) tells Sam he can make some extra cash by shepherding a Black preacher like Nat around to nearby plantations to preach submission and dutiful service to slaves, it might improve production and put more money in Sam’s pocket. These excursions provide starkly different revelations to Sam and Nat. Sam sees the responsibility of plantation owners to be hard and fierce, while Nat sees the disgusting and barbaric evil that is being experienced by so many slaves. This division quickly escalates the conflict between Nat and Sam. Sam begins to implement some of the practices he sees other owners using on their slaves all while developing a pretty strong relationship with the bottle. Meanwhile, Nat is disgusted and horrified by what he sees and is even more wrathful over his role in perpetuating it. This along with Nat’s desire to protect his family including his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and mother Esther (Gabrielle Union) from escalating danger prompts him to organize and plan the now historic and infamous Southampton Insurrection.
The Birth of a Nation is very successful at its portrait of Nat Turner. Other characters, on the other hand are left relatively flat and underdeveloped. Furthermore, Nate Parker is excellent in the role of Turner. It is clear that he has studied Turner and has taken his story to heart; the performance is drenched in passion and power. Parker’s off-the-screen controversy certainly does cast a shadow over the project, and it adds to the long complicated discussion about whether it’s important to separate the art from the artist. The subject matter does not necessarily relate to Parker’s rape accusations and subsequent suicide of the victim, but it can affect the way a viewer perceives Parker’s performance as a man searching for righteousness in an unjust society.
Controversy aside, the film is flashy, bold, and gut-wrenching. There are some questionable pacing choices in the film, and at the end while haunting, the film does feel less penetrating and substantial than others of its kind. Obvious comparisons will be drawn between The Birth of a Nation and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. While each one has its merits, what makes 12 Years a Slave so much better is its rawness, lack of melodrama, and depth. The Birth of a Nation, while compelling is not quite at the level of allegory and complexity that Steve McQueen achieved with 12 Years. The best thing about The Birth of a Nation is easily Parker’s performance. It’s too early to talk Oscar, but he’d be a solid candidate in the early conversation for sure. B
The Birth of a Nation is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours.