Director: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union
‘The Birth of a Nation’ has been the center of many controversies during it’s short tenure; it has reclaimed the title of an earlier movie about the KKK, it was the subject of the most expensive bid for a movie at Sundance, and it marked the beginning of a promising career for a new film-maker, followed rapidly by a downfall due to a controversial event from his past. Unfortunately, the things I mentioned there are more interesting than the movie itself, and if that last point about Nate Parker’s past gives you pause, you may just want to sit this one out.
The film begins with a eerie rendezvous in the swamp involving a young Nat Turner. The dreamy sequence may be just that, as the real Turner was plagued (or blessed, depends on how you interpret) by what he believed to be visions from God. We then jump to young Nat learning his way around the plantation and what his role in life will be. After his father runs away, Nat quickly makes an enemy in the overseer (Jackie Earle Haley), and the extra scrutiny from the mistress of the farm (Penelope Ann Miller), who sees something special in Nat and teaches him to read.
Eventually Turner (Nate Parker) becomes a preacher and develops a semi-cosy relationship with his new master (Armie Hammer) which allows him the privilege to travel from plantation to plantation preaching the gospel. After suffering great personal misfortune at the hands of slave owners, Turner realizes that even with some privilege he has no rights. He and his family are still just property and the gospel he preaches is being used to subjugate his fellow man, not free him.
That’s how the climax of the movie, the actual rebellion, comes about. Parker takes his time plodding through the atrocities and indignities of being a slave (which are important to note, but Parker’s take adds nothing new) and when he finally gets around to the rebellion and its terrible aftermath, the movie is over!
Acting-wise, Parker is fine in the lead role, but is outshone by the wonderful performance of Aja Naomi King as Turner’s wife. Armie Hammer is cast quite well as someone the audience is quick to laugh at and with, until he does something that reminds you that he thinks it’s okay to own people. True to her word, Gabrielle Union has no lines but has one of the more powerful moments in the film, especially when you know about her life before this.
Spoilers to this historical event, but Nat Turner does lead a rebellion that ended in killing around 65 people, men, women, and children alike. What is barley mentioned in the movie however, is the rebellion’s terrifying aftermath. Over 200 slaves were killed by militias and mobs, and new laws were passed preventing slaves from education, free assembly, and worship. The United States is currently grappling with its own problems of accountability regarding law enforcement and black citizens, and whilst the two events are by no means the same, they do have a similar thread of unchecked power and judgement without trial. It seems like something Parker missed out on addressing, which is a shame.
This movie also comes just a few years after ’12 Years A Slave’ and while the films tell completely different stories, they both are tasked with depicting the daily life of slavery in all its horror. Steve McQueen displayed the South as a place of beauty that served as a backdrop for such ugly atrocities that I still can’t forget some scenes. Parker however seems to be going through the motions of what to show and it comes off as uninspired and unoriginal, albeit with a few powerful scenes. It may not be fair to compare the two films but I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Overall, the movie is filled with moments that pack a powerful punch, but the film itself left me cold. It is straightforward and follows the “wronged man gets revenge” narrative to a fault. I would say it is a promising start for a first time director but I’m not sure if Parker has much of a future after the backlash he has received about his past. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ may simply live on in film history as a movie where the surrounding press overshadowed a decent movie.