There are many layers of subtext surrounding Nate Parker’s new film, The Birth of a Nation. The story of Turner’s Rebellion, a dark, shameful, bloody chapter of American history that is seldom referenced, even as social justice topics like the Black Lives Matter movement dominate a portion of the daily news cycle, has never been more realized. Parker, himself not immune to controversy, has written, directed, produced and stars in the story of Nat Turner, a slave-turned-preacher who, after being told by god to do so, rose up, gathered an army of slaves, and slaughtered as many white slave owners and their families as they could before they were caught and killed in 1831 Virginia.
The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner’s life from a young boy, marked for greatness as a leader of men by a tribal shaman due to a series of birthmarks on his chest, to adulthood as a cotton picker who was taught to read by his owner’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller). Through adult Nat’s (Parker) eyes, the audience sees the horrors that slaves went through in the early 19th century. And Parker does not hold back in the violence. We see lynchings, rape, outright murder, and even a soul-cringing scene of a slave being force fed after they went on a hunger strike.
Parker’s Nat is haunted by his slave life, and is torn between his master’s wishes, and his own sense of righteousness. When his owner, Samuel (Armie Hammer) decides to use Nat to preach to other slaves to help keep their obedience — for a profit from his fellow slave owners, of course — Nat is able to reach more and more people, and his fiery sermons work to gain the faith of his scattered congregation in southern Virginia.
Nat himself falls in love with a slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King) that belongs to Samuel’s sister, and they marry. Cherry is brutally raped and beaten by a slave chaser (Jackie Earle Haley), and his own master whores out Nat’s friend’s wife (Gabrielle Union) to another slave owner, and Nat decides that his prophecy as a leader of men must come to pass and he gathers an army of fellow slaves to win their freedom at the end of a blade or rifle.
Taking a page out of the history books, one day when Nat witnesses a solar eclipse, he takes that as a sign from god to begin his rebellion, and he and his army begin a reign of terror that lasted two days and saw the slaughter of men, women, and children (though The Birth of a Nation downplays the murder of the children). Turner is eventually caught and is hanged for his “crimes.” His rebellion helped set the stage 30 years later for the civil war and the eventual Emancipation Proclamation.
As a director, Nate Parker does an excellent job of telling his story (which he also wrote). The Birth of a Nation is more than just a labor of love, and Parker reportedly shopped the script around Hollywood for years until he could finally piece together the right backing to realize his vision. The wait was worth it.
The acting is top notch from all parties, with Parker seemingly knowing Nat Turner inside out, even if he seems to love the extreme close-up on his own face. On the other side of the coin, Armie Hammer tows the line between possible slave sympathizer and slave owner wonderfully. Of course, in a film like The Birth of a Nation, race lines are hard drawn in the sand, and the slave owners are the bad guys here. That is not disputed, nor is that line blurred.
Parker does a wonderful job turning Nat Turner’s story into a feature film. He uses historical fact when necessary, but fudges certain things for the sake of Hollywood. Historians can choose to overlook the changes (my degree is in history, and in full disclosure, I was once working on a book about Turner’s Rebellion), as Parker hits the important notes in telling Turner’s story. The Birth of a Nation could have gone to the extreme — on either side — but it shows restraint, focusing more on the personal horrors that slaves endured and showing why they rose up in bloody defiance. It took a careful hand to make a film like this, and Parker executes it well.
Also, Nate Paker’s decision to call the film The Birth of Nation, which was the same title of a short propaganda film 100 years ago about the Ku Klux Klan is almost a stroke of genius. As I said in the opening, The Birth of a Nation is mired is so much controversy that sometimes, the art can’t be separated from the factors around it. Taken as a film, it is a brutal, honest look at a shameful part of America’s past. If you look between the lines, you will find more — so much more — and it might make you uncomfortable. But that’s also a sign of great art, so take it for what it is.
The Birth of a Nation is rated R and is in theaters now.
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