The Birth of a Nation
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley
The comparisons with “12 Years A Slave” will be impossible to avoid. Both true stories focus on slaves during the early 1800’s, both films distributed by Fox Searchlight, but the similarities really end there. “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for best picture, was a polished film from British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who cast acting heavyweights to raise the visibility of his picture. “The Birth of a Nation” is equal in importance and violent subject matter, but it’s more of an art film. Quite an impressive first effort from American actor turned filmmaker Nate Parker. Visually, Parker’s film is the more striking. In many ways it’s a quieter film, expressive in the presentation of visual elements, yet haunting in the delivery of foreshadowing.
In some ways Southampton, VA slave Nat Turner (Parker) was luckier than most slaves. His young plantation owner Samuel Turner (Hammer) cashed in on Nat’s ability to read the Bible and preach to other slaves. Samuel also listened to Nat when he encouraged his master to purchase Cherry (King) at a backwoods auction. She would later become Nat’s wife and give him a daughter. As Nat travels around the state, only allowed to read certain parts of the Bible that instruct slaves to obey their masters, God begins to speak to him louder. After his wife is brutally raped, the usually quiet and respective Nat changes from obedient slave preacher to vengeful revolt leader as he leads a local rebellion against brutal slave owners.
Parker's performance in front of the camera, is one of the year’s most commanding and unforgettable deliveries.
“Birth of a Nation” is one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent memory, but certainly not perfect. While there are structural issues with Parker’s work behind the camera, his performance in front, is one of the year’s most commanding and unforgettable deliveries. Parker who also wrote the screenplay and serves as producer, alters a bit of Nat Turner’s historical biography to show how the revolt was prompted by more than just inspiration from above. Parker’s script does an excellent job with juxtaposing Nat’s physical and emotional pain with the slave owners dinner parties or trivial concerns. It’s also impossible to ignore the connection and relevance from the events in 1831 to what’s happening today. “They’re killing people for no reason but being black,” Cherry says following Nat’s bloody revolt.
Yes, “Birth of a Nation” is a difficult film to watch, that’s the point, facing the worst and most shameful period in American history. “If you stand between the Lord and his people, it’s a dangerous place to be,” Nat says. Parker’s own shameful history will unfortunately detour some audiences and likely hurt the film during awards consideration. “Birth of a Nation” touches on a lot of emotions as the country continues to deal with social unrest, but it’s relevance shouldn’t automatically disguise the film uneven elements. History will decide the box office and award season fate of the film, but the emotional power of the film cannot be denied and its effect on the viewer can’t be ignored.
Parker delivers a powerful experience as a first time filmmaker.