Review: Birth of a Nation
PLOT: The true story of slave Nat Turner (Nate Parker) who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
REVIEW: It’s hard not to get a particular charge out of THE BIRTH OF A NATION. While 12 YEARS A SLAVE marked an important turn in audience’s willingness to embrace a movie about slavery, let’s not forget that movie was made (and starred) mostly Europeans. THE BIRTH OF A NATION is an American film, and as such is uniquely positioned to truly reflect on that dark period in history.
A passion project for writer-director-star Nate Parker, it’s commendable in how he put his own burgeoning career on hold once he achieved the necessary level of clout to assemble financing in a way that could do this story justice. Reportedly costing only $10 million, Parker’s movie looks like it cost five times that. No wonder Fox Searchlight shelled-out $17.5 million to acquire the rights. Given the rapturous reception at Sundance, they may well have a big-time Oscar player on their hands.
Turner’s story is incredible. Taught to read by the wife of his master, Turner became renowned in the South as a preacher, traveling from plantation to plantation with his master (Armie Hammer) to preach to his fellow slaves, with the idea being that this would pacify them. After seeing the brutal way slaves were being treated, which included his own wife being raped and beaten to a pulp by local lawmakers, Turner, who found inspiration in the bible, organized a revolt.
Certainly not the easiest topic to choose for your first movie, it’s clear this is a story that possessed Parker, and the result is an amazingly accomplished effort. Parker himself plays Turner in a searing performance. Having acted in movies like RED HOOK SUMMER, BEYOND THE LIGHTS, and RED TAILS, Parker proves himself as a real heavyweight. The evolution of Turner from a somewhat pacified slave to a leader is well-defined. Early scenes establish his semi-friendship with Armie Hammer’s Sam, with the latter becoming more brutal to his slaves after struggling to keep his plantation afloat. The tribulations faced by the slaves are inconceivable. While more brutal moments include a slave being force-fed by having his teeth chiseled out, another heart-breaker is when one of Nat’s friends has to give up his wife (Gabrielle Union) for a night with a lascivious guest of her owner.
Even more than 12 YEARS A SLAVE, slavery at that time is evoked in a provocative way. The owners are portrayed three-dimensionally, in that there are gentle ones and sadistic ones. Yet, in their own way the gentle ones are shown to be just as guilty as the worst sadists, and when Turner and his men start taking lives indiscriminently, it’s easy to see why. No one is innocent.
Parker’s stretched his budget to the limit here, with evocative photography by Elliot Davis, and an extremely effective score by Henry Jackman. His cast is terrific, with Hammer excellent as the complex slave owner (PenelopeAnn Millerplays his mother), Aja Naomi King as Turner’s wife, and Jackie Earle Haley as a particularly hiss-worthy southerner.
It’s easy to walk out of THE BIRTH OF A NATION angry, as it’s a movie that doesn’t spare you any of the truths of the era. But, Parker’s movie is about more than that. While the title daringly claims the title of D.W Griffith’s seminal Southern drama THE BIRTH OF A NATION as it’s own, it’s doubly effective in that Turner is shown to reflect the awakening of a new black consciousness. It’s an important film and one that will spark a lot of conversation in the year to come.