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  • Birth of a Nation, The | Review

    By | October 7, 2016

    birth

    Director: Nate Parker

    Writer: Nate Parker, Jean McGianni Celestin

    Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King

    Director Nate Parker spent years raising money for The Birth of a Nation before going on to produce, write, direct and star in it. Prior to now, he’s been known mostly for roles in films such as The Great Debaters and Red Tails. There’s no doubt that his ability to get this film made was a great accomplishment worthy of admiration and there’s no doubt that this film is focusing on an important story in American history or that it’s doing so at a time in our history that seems right for it. But when all is said and done, I found myself thinking that the film, whose title is borrowed from that of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 love letter to the Confederacy and the Klan, feels more important, and self-aware of its importance, than artistically satisfying.

    Parker’s film tells the story of Nate Turner, a Virginia slave who in 1831 led a slave insurrection that left dozens of white men, women and children murdered, before the insurrectionists were captured and executed for their actions, Nat Turner being hung last among them. It also led to the retaliatory murder of scores of slaves and left slaveholders throughout the south fearing what might come next. Turner was interviewed before being hung and told stories of his childhood powers of divination and marks on his head and chest that had set him apart in his childhood, how after becoming aware of his own greatness he set himself apart from his society and spent his time praying and fasting and soon began to hear whisperings from “the spirit” and began to be given signs such as drops of blood appearing on fields of corn and a solar eclipse. 

    The film’s Turner (Nate Parker) is not a recluse but instead an active preacher who delivers encouraging sermons on the slave’s plantation church. As a child, he is close to his master’s son Samuel, whose mother (Penelope Ann Miller) brings him into the house and teaches him passages from the bible. For a time, he is almost a part of the family until his master’s death, after which he is returned to the fields. Later, a grownup Samuel (Armie Hammer), after falling on hard times, decides to rent out Nat to go around delivering sermons of docility and acceptance to other plantation owners’ slaves, hoping it will keep them subdued. As Turner travels from plantation to plantation, he and the movie’s audience witness the horrors of slavery.

    Along the way, Turner comes across a battered and traumatized woman for sale at a slave auction and convinces Samuel to buy her, in hopes that his relatively lenient master can better her lot. But he also has an ulterior motive as he’s clearly taken with her. It’s a bit troubling the way the film presents Samuel’s role in his master’s acquisition of Nancy (Aja Naomi King), leading to an eventual courtship and marriage. It’s after Nancy is beaten and raped by a band of slave catchers that Nat plans and carries out his revolt. As with so many American stories, this is a tale of men told by men, with women serving as little more than impetus for lustful wrongs or vengeful rights.

    The power of Nat Turner’s story is in it’s undefineable inspiration and it’s lingering impact. Was he a just prophet of death and destruction carrying out punishment for the sins of slavery or a delusional violent madman? Did his actions bring about any positive change or have any lasting ramifications? Was his revolt a story of triumph or tragedy? Is he a hero or a villain? The reality is that there are no clear answers and therein lies the majesty and power of Nat Turner’s story. The Nat Turner of this movie, on the other hand, is well defined and explainable with Parker wanting to place his revolt as a key step in the end of slavery. As he’s hung, the camera draws close to the face of an upset young slave boy who is watching only to pan out again showing the boy grown up as as Union soldier charging into battle. If only the truth were as clean cut and simple as the story told in Parker’s film.

    Rating: 7/10

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