Directed by Nate Parker
Written by Nate Parker (screenplay and story) & Jean McGianni Celestin (story)
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earl Haley, Aja Naomi King, Tony Espinosa, and Gabrielle Union
Runtime: 110 minutes
In 1915, legendary director D. W. Griffith premiered The Birth of a Nation based on Thomas J. Dixon’s book and stage play The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. The film is noteworthy because of the sheer skill that went into making it, utilizing all of the filmmaking language that had come before it and inventing new techniques that are still used today and notorious for its subject matter in the second half, praising the KKK as the heroes of Reconstruction South and the demonization of African Americans. Now, 101 years later, Nate Parker has taken the title of the controversial classic and put it on a biography of Nat Turner, a slave who led a 48-hour rebellion against slavery.
The film follows Nat from his youth (played by Tony Espinosa), where he was told he was marked by God to be a great leader and when it was discovered he could read and rather than be punished for it, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), the lady of the house, took him into the house and taught him to read better, pretty much exclusively from the Bible. As he grew older, he was put to work as a preacher (and is now played by Nate Parker), but when the master died, he was put into the fields until Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) needs money so he farms out Nat’s preaching to other plantations so he can quote the parts of the bible that slave owners used to justify their owning humans in order to get these slaves to cooperate. During this time, he convinces Samuel to buy a young woman named Cherry (Aja Naomi King) whom he falls in love with and eventually marries and has a daughter with. All this leading up to a brutal attack on her by the sheriff (Jackie Earl Haley) which sparks Nat’s rebellion.
Being based on an historical event, the story is very plot heavy though Parker’s screenplay makes room in that plot for some decent character development. Very few people are types here, which is a relief given that this is Parker’s first feature length screenplay. He focuses most of his attention on Nat, but gives some good parts to his supporting actors. There are some moments of clunky dialogue and repetitive scenes, but that’s ultimately forgiven due to the strength of the story being told. The repetition serves as a reminder that life as a slave was soul-deadeningly the same, day after day.
There are some problems with the characterizations, however. Samuel and his father being the ‘kindly masters’ letting their slaves get married, live with their spouses, never seeming to sell off any of their slaves and break up families to the point that Nat’s grandmother, mother and he have been on this plantation all his life and probably a large chunk of theirs. Now, history does record that there were some slave owners that were ‘nice’ (though they were still slave owners, and no amount of decent treatment can change that fact) and did these things as well as were light on punishment, but Parker makes the Turner Plantation seem like it was an okay place to be. He does weave in atrocities when Nat visits other farms and most specifically in the character of the sheriff, but he paints Nat’s life as a lot better than it likely was.
Parker’s direction is distinctively that of a first time director, too. Though he does make some powerful images and gets very good performances out of his actors, he maybe spends a little too much time on himself as Nat. There are also moments of on-the-nose symbolism that strike a false note. These rookie mistakes are easily overlooked and they don’t really detract from the quality of the film and once he gets going in the rebellion, his direction is strong and assured.
Parker also delivers an incredible performance as Nat Turner. He’s a very gifted performer and we can see the instances where he starts to break down and realize that although he hasn’t necessarily had it as bad as others he starts to see, his situation is still one of bondage and that slaves should be free. Hammer delivers a good performance as the alcoholic Samuel, desperately trying to hold onto his family’s legacy while diving deeper into debt (the reason for which is never told, but it’s likely due to his drinking and poor management of finances). He’s a little too sympathetic for a slave owner, but that’s not a problem with his performance.
There are some out there calling The Birth of a Nation an exercise in egotism, because of Parker’s duties as writer, director, producer and star, but no one accused others of this and there have been plenty of filmmakers who have taken on the same roles for most of their films. This could be the result of some latent racial bias that it’s okay when white filmmakers take on various roles in production but when it’s a black man, it’s egotism. Sometimes people don’t know that their comments are racist. That’s not to say that if you don’t like this movie that you’re a racist, either. The film is not to everyone’s tastes and if you have a genuine reason, then so be it. Some people may steer clear of the film because of Parker’s past rape allegations becoming public and though he was acquitted, there is still reasonable doubt and the woman who was allegedly raped killed herself a few years ago, apparently as a result of the trauma she still faced from the attack. Parker refused to apologize to the family of the woman, insisting he wouldn’t apologize because he didn’t do anything wrong.
Parker’s past is certainly an issue, but it has nothing to do with the film he produced. The Birth of a Nation is a stirring and powerful piece of work that tells a story many may not know because slavery is so often breezed over in school so teachers don’t have to tell little kids how horrible it all was. Parker has delivered a powerhouse of a film that has some problems, but is largely stunning, well-crafted and performed with gusto. It is the work of a filmmaker to watch and is one of the best films of the year so far.