The Birth of a Nation – which reclaims its title from a KKK propaganda film made over a hundred years ago – is a heady mix of gut-level artistry and timely history lesson, told from the perspective of an ambitious auteur making his directorial debut. Nate Parker, who wrote, produced and directed the movie, stars as Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in mid-19th century Virginia. Cobbling together financing from many disparate sources to tell a story that meant so much to him, Parker’s Nation has been rousing audiences since its debut and record-breaking purchase at Sundance earlier this year, even as his personal past has nearly overtake the conversation surrounding the film.
At its centre, Parker plays Turner as a spiritually grounded man of strong principle and character. Early scenes show a young Turner in shamanistic rituals that portend great things for his future, despite the hardships that are certain to come with being born into slavery in early 1800’s America. Showing a natural curiousity and propensity for reading, the young Nat Turner is taken into the home of plantation owner Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Anne Miller) and educated in the bible.
As a man, Nat is forced to return to the harsh cotton fields by his owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who, having grown up alongside Nat, is also his perverse surrogate brother in a way. Slowly giving in to drink and despair, the down-on-his-luck Samuel allows Nat (who’s now an accomplished preacher) to travel to neighbouring plantations to both preach to and quell potential uprisings amongst his fellow slaves.
Nation never shies away from the horrors of slavery , showing the wanton lack of compassion in vile characters like the slave hunter played by Jackie Earle Haley or a venal and crooked Reverend (Mark Boone Junior). But it’s when Nat travels to other plantations that Parker’s disparate threads (including a few romance subplots and the fading humanity of the conflicted Samuel) begin to come together. Here the cruelty of slave owners is laid bare in scenes that are ugly and heart-wrenching as Nat struggles to reconcile his faith with the unspeakable acts he witnesses.
When Nat’s beloved wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is brutally raped and beaten his resolve becomes complete, and he gathers like-minded slaves in the middle of the night for an assault on their masters that would last two days and leave many on both sides of the racial and ideological divide dead. It’s a stirring tale that’s even more potent given 2016’s unfortunate political climate. Parker soars in the lead role, especially when given the opportunity to make a grand speech. Those moments work better than the eventual violence that the movie devolves into, although a bittersweet finale ensures that Nation won’t soon be forgotten.
Before those transcendent moments occur, the movie suffers from an episodic structure that doesn’t allow many characters to truly pop, leading to some stilted dialogue and rushed plotlines that could’ve benefited from being fleshed out. Armie Hammer is chilling as Samuel, a seemingly decent man who devolves into villainy so quickly that it barely has time to register. Nat’s co-conspirators in the uprising – like a young boy whose true motivations are heartbreaking or Colman Domingo as a stalwart ally – are given some backstory but often fade into the background. The movie, perhaps as a result of its independent nature and comparitively low budget, can’t help but feel small at times. Those constraints are keenly felt in battle scenes that feel muted, though they nonetheless achieve emotional power by dint of strong imagery and pure force of will.
It’s likely many will judge Nation against the stellar 12 Years A Slave, leaving Parker’s film to pale in comparison. But a closer analog to The Birth of a Nation, at least to me, is Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Both films are about righteous men who enact violent revolts against their oppressors and are motivated alternatively by love and honour as they try to carve out a better future for their fellow man. Even in their final moments, (spoiler alert!) Nation is remarkable similar to Braveheart and reaches an operatic high (and martyrdom for its leads) with the help of a powerful song choice.
The Birth of a Nation is an impressive feat even if the seams sometimes show. It’s not a sweeping work of art like Steve McQueen’s 12 Year a Slave, but it is a lightning rod that’s imbued with passion. It’s also a litmus test for a variety of strong emotions and a depiction of the ugly history of a conflicted nation that continues to be plagued by racial divides.
The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Directed by Nate Parker
Runtime: 120 minutes