Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation is a searing opus that harkens back to a period when the degradation of a human based on the color of their skin was an acceptable part of life (sadly, we haven’t come as far as we should have). Parker holds nothing back in this retelling of the rebellion, led by a minister slave named Nat Turner, in 1831. It depicts some of the most horrific acts a human being could endure in hopes of achieving catharsis and generating a discussion the audience.
Don’t waste time trying to compare this film to 12 Years a Slave. While both films dive deeply into the topic of slavery, The Birth Of A Nation feels like more of a window into this period than 12 Years a Slave. In 12 Years A Slave, there was always hope that Solomon Northop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was always going to be rescued. Certain parts of the film felt as if it were Hollywood’s version of what slavery was in the United States. The Birth Of A Nation is a film that’s artfully structured, bringing truths to light about slavery that no American history book would ever say.
Nat Turner seems destined for greatness at a young age when, during an African rite of passage ceremony, his ancestors have visions of greatness. At an early age, he seemed to be far more advanced than the average African American boy. His life on the Turner plantation takes a sudden turn when Mrs. Turner (played beautifully by Penelope Ann Miller) notices how talented he is and offers to teach him how to read the Bible. Years later, we find him picking cotton for a new head of Turner, Samuel (played by Armie Hammer), whom Nat had grown up with on the plantation. Times are tough for the Turners, but Samuel likes to keep up appearances and is convinced by Nat to buy a slave girl named Cherry (Aja Naomi King), whom Nat has fallen in love with.
As time moves on, the economy gets tougher, and a local preacher suggests that they turn Nat’s newfound ability to preach to the plantation workers into a money making scheme. They start renting him out to plantation owners on the condition that he preach the gospel of submission to the masters.
As the tour progresses, Nat witnesses atrocity after atrocity occurring in the name of keeping order and making sure all the cotton has been picked. Samuel begins to pick up on the rage boiling over and realizes it needs to be dealt with. He starts to take a more hard-line approach towards Nat, even going so far as to whipping him in a scene that is, amazingly, equal parts uplifting and gruesome. It isn’t until Cherry is brutally assaulted by three plantation owners, though, that Samuel decides the only answer here is to fight back.
Parker has a tremendous feel for pacing, as the narrative slowly matriculates to its crescendo, and violence erupts. The feeling of pent-up rage is palpable. Don’t confuse that to mean this is a film about violence; in fact, it’s quite the opposite as The Birth Of A Nation is a movie about freedom and how far we are willing to go to achieve it.
Cinematographer Elliot Davis plays a big part in the success of this film. Davis, tasked with capturing the simmering rage of these slaves as they morphed from submissive members of the plantation to human beings who were willing to fight for the freedom to live their lives, allows his camera to creep into the psyche of the characters. He uses tight shots during the most emotional moments of the film to capture this transformation.
Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, and Penelope Ann Miller are magnificent here. Parker stands out, bringing such fire to a role that it will be difficult to ignore this type of performance around awards season. Armie Hammer and Penelope Ann Miller both command the screen as they both show such conviction to “southern values,” but are torn about how they are treating Nat. Aja Nicole King projects such resilience on the screen that our heart shatters for her every time she faces another tragedy. It will not be shocking if all four of these names are ones we hear in the coming months as we get closer to awards season.