Image courtesy 20th Century Fox.
The Birth of a Nation is a bold directorial debut for Nate Parker, and while a few critics have pointed out it displays several uneven choices one might expect from a first-time director, the picture is powerful, not only in its depiction of the horrors of slavery but also as a reminder of the turbulent race relations that our nation currently faces.
The film takes its name from D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film of the same name, but that’s about all they have in common. Griffith’s film is considered a significant cinematic work, due to its groundbreaking camera procedures, storytelling devices, and its sheer length considered excessive for the time. In fact, it heralded the standard two-hour time format of the modern feature film. Anyone with an interest in film should seek it out. It is also extremely unsettling due to the blatantly racist depictions of black people and the KKK’s portrayal as heroic.
Parker has reclaimed that film’s title in telling the story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Southampton, Virginia in 1831 during which he and his band of fellow slaves killed between 55 and 60 white slave owners before he was later captured.
The film opens with young Nat being deemed by a shaman as a prophet, and indeed, Turner was said to have visions that may have been a result of mental illness. Regardless, he was a deeply religious man who, after suffering at the hands of whites, led an Old Testament-style revenge against slave owners.
For the first two-thirds of the movie, Nat appears to be a favorite of his master (Armie Hammer) and even convinces him to buy a young woman named Cherry (Aja Naomi King), with whom Turner later falls in love and marries. In fact, it is a particularly horrific act against his wife – as well as another scene in which a woman (Gabrielle Union) on the plantation where Nat lives is forced to have sex with a white man – that convinces Turner, at least in this film, to rebel.
Parker plays Turner as a religious man of deeply held convictions, but he’s also a combination of a Moses (a leader who easily convinces other men to follow his plan) and a William Wallace (another prophet who was prone to bloodshed when it was called for). It’s a strong performance, and especially so considering that Parker, a novice filmmaker, is essentially directing himself for much for the picture.
The great film about slavery remains Steve McQueen’s flawless 12 Years a Slave and Parker’s movie isn’t without a few flaws: some of the early scenes of Nat as a boy aren’t as effective and a scene in which a head is cut off veers closely toward grand Guignol. But those are easily compensated for by the film’s stunning imagery, for example several slaves hanging from trees swaying to the sound of Billie Holiday’s haunting “Strange Fruit.” It is also marked by potent social commentary, such as the statement that people are “killed for no reason at all but being black” resonating this year in particular.
The Birth of a Nation is an important, powerful movie, and hints to a potentially great career behind the camera for Nate Parker. The picture is cathartic, especially in a year when white supremacy has reared its ugly head in the U.S., but also a reminder that we still have a long way to go.
Watch the Birth of a Nation trailer below: