The Birth of a Nation is as compelling a historical portrait as any audiences have seen in film this year. The film triumphs thanks to writer/director/actor Nate Parker’s measured but purposeful approach to the source material.
Don’t let its familiar title confuse you. While it shares its name with a 1915 film infamous for giving the KKK new life in the 20th Century, this Birth of a Nation film tells an entirely different story. Further, it should serve as an antithesis to everything the earlier film stands for, then and now.
But beyond its social and political messages, The Birth of a Nation is exceptionally well-written and acted. It may be difficult to watch at times for the violence and cruelty it depicts, but ultimately it’s a rewarding film experience.
What’s it about
The Birth of a Nation dramatizes the life and social impact of Nat Turner (Parker), who in 1831 led a slave revolt through his home county of Southampton in Virginia.
Born into slavery, young Nat surprises his owner’s wife, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) with his aptitude for letters. She endeavors to teach him how to read, but only gives him access to the Bible. Other books, as she gently tells Nat, weren’t for his “kind” because they wouldn’t be understood.
As an adult, Nat preaches to his fellow slaves with the blessing of his childhood friend-turned-master, Samuel (Armie Hammer). He also falls in love with Cherry (Aja Naomi King, TV “How to Get Away with Murder“), another slave purchased to tend to Samuel’s newlywed younger sister.
Things change when an unscrupulous reverend (Mark Boone, Jr.) sees in Nat an opportunity for wealth. Neighboring plantation owners, he tells Samuel, would pay well for Nat to preach to their slaves as means of better controlling them.
Samuel, in turn, sees that potential wealth as an opportunity to bring prosperity back to his family home. He goes forward with the idea, and thus Nat comes in contact with slaves whose owners are far harsher to them than his ever were.
The cruelties Nat witnesses, along with violations inflicted upon his own loved ones, sow seeds of insurrection in Nat’s heart. He also finds inspiration to fight back from scripture, as he realizes that for every one passage that legitimizes slaves’ servitude, there were ten that sanctified their right to freedom.
Believing God and justice on his side, Nat rallies those willing to follow him to the only course left to them: to fight.
Re-purposing the title
The Birth of a Nation brings with it some controversy due in part to the title it consciously appropriates.
The reference to the earlier film is without a doubt deliberate. Parker aims to re-purpose the title, to make it synonymous with the very opposite of its current association.
But there’s a literal connection to the title and the film’s story, as well. Nat Turner’s antebellum effort, failed as it was, can still be seen as a starting point for protest movements built around race relations in the U.S. Parker’s film, though it does take some liberties with the story, emphasizes the importance of that starting point, and its enduring legacy.
Will Parker’s effort, stellar as it is, be enough to truly wipe away that earlier association? That remains to be seen.
But what can’t be argued is the heart, thought, and vision behind Parker’s work here. The Birth of a Nation took both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year. Those won’t be the last accolades this film will earn.
Strong visuals, characterizations
Visually, The Birth of a Nation is often stunning. From the detail of its production and costume design to the photography that brings to life antebellum Virginia, it should be a delight for audiences with an eye for historical accuracy.
If there’s a nitpick to be made, it’s overuse of filters to cast a colder light on grim story beats. The intent is clear, but the effect may come to grate, as what’s depicted on screen is already weighty enough.
Complimenting all the dynamic camerawork and location photography are strong actor performances. Part of what makes this depiction of Nat Turner’s story so compelling is how complex the characterizations are, and how well the cast delivers those complexities.
Parker himself brings both gentleness and conviction to his portrayal of Parker. But praise in equal measure is due to Armie Hammer. Hammer plays Samuel as a man who struggles with his complicity in the system. He knows it sustains his way of life while keeping his friend and those like him in servitude. The guilt that comes with that knowledge slowly consumes him.
Other standouts in the cast include Miller, King, and Jackie Earle Haley, who plays a zealous slave patrol captain. King, in particular, shines in her shared scenes with Parker. The romance between Nat and Cherry, though brief, injects some lightness into the proceedings.
The Birth of a Nation is, without a doubt, a film that must be seen to be appreciated. Further, it should be seen on the big screen to best experience its scope and vision.
It should go without saying, as well, that its themes and protest message absolutely resonate in today’s turbulent times. Some may say that they go to the movies to escape from that kind of turbulence. That’s everyone’s right – it’s their entertainment dollar, after all.
But the effort that brings that bring this story to life, as well as the legacy that gives it poignancy, deserve your attention.
Birth of a Nation
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union with Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley. Directed by Nate Parker.
Running Time: 120 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.