MOVIE REVIEW: The Birth of a Nation



Four years ago to the week, this website expounded on the word “timely” to describe what would become the Academy Award winner for Best Picture that year, Ben Affleck’s “Argo.”  Its timeliness was unplanned, arriving in a 2012 month filled with nuclear tension with Iran and embassy attacks in Libya and Egypt that drew topical correlations to its own momentous hostage story.  Today, directly echoing the racial tension and divides present in our country, “The Birth of a Nation” acquires the “timely” badge and earns the difficult processing time it requires of its audiences.

Unfortunately, for many filmgoers walking up to Nate Parker’s film, “timely” is not the word they are using first.  In some circles, you’re going to hear “controversial” instead.  Difficult and controversial are two different things.  Full disclosure, this very writer separates the performer from the performance in his film reviews. If you want to put Parker’s past indiscretions on a list of public flaws next to Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Woody Allen, or even Bill Cosby, that’s your right.  This is a film review.  The other soapbox you are looking for will be on a different site.

“The Birth of a Nation” is a fierce personal statement and the directorial debut of writer, producer, and star Nate Parker, known most for his lead performance in Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters.”  The 36-year-old actor spent seven years stumping for funding to bring the biography of Nat Turner, the storied leader of an 1831 slave rebellion, to life.  The film went on to become a dual winner of the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, in the same February month where the #OscarsSoWhite fervor was at its boiling point this past winter.  Urgent and exasperating at the same time, “The Birth of a Nation” needs to be seen.  

Parker’s cradle-to-the-grave depiction of Nat Turner’s 31 influential years of life is hosted by two sources of spirituality and symbolism, the pagan and the Christian.  As a young boy born into slavery in Southhampton County, Virginia to his mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis), Nat is marked and seen as a prophet by the tribal rituals of his fellow African descendants.  When Nat is taken in by his plantation’s matriarch, Elizabeth Turner (a long-lost Penelope Ann Miller, embodying “white silence”), as the favored playmate of her son Samuel, he is taught to read using only the Holy Bible.  The scriptures educate his mind and fill his heart once he is sent back to the cotton fields.

Moving into adulthood, Nat passes on his devotion as a preacher in makeshift church services for his fellow slaves on the Turner property.  Bolstered by faith supporting their internal hope, as well as a level of leniency from the grown Samuel (Armie Hammer) now leading the family plantation, the Turner slaves navigate their harsh conditions with a minor measure of compliance.  For extra money, Samuel begins employing Nat to preach at neighboring plantations in the county in an effort to duplicate the quelled temperament that comes from the good Word spoken by one of their own.

During the traveling tour, Nat and Samuel observe the harsher and more deplorable conditions and practices maintained by other slave owners.  Those witnessed indignities embolden Nat’s resolve to deliver louder and more impassioned sermons, even while held down in his forced role as a pawn and dressed-up appeaser.  His resolute will is broken when the racially-targeted violence strikes home after the brutal sexual assault of his wife Cherry (“How to Get Away with Murder” series regular Aja Naomi King).  Nat’s growing anger and increasing prophetic visions shift his path from seeking hope to calling for violence and organizing his historic uprising.

Outside of the overly simple romantic union between Nat and Cherry, levity is a hard thing to find in “The Birth of a Nation.”  Such is a strong and purposeful stance that supports its intent to honorably retell poignant history with no apologies.  Severe one moment and captivating the next in a vicious cycle, the film composes a story that deserves this scale and podium.  Far from a sugarcoat of self-censorship and more closer to smart emotional storytelling, the suggested brutality off-screen stirs your conscience greater than the jarring episodes seen on-screen, especially through the period detail and the lens of nature light captured by cinematographer Elliot Davis (“The Iron Lady,” “Out of Sight”).  

Circling back to the “timely” label, the film bears the designation in equally positive and negative connotations, depending of your personal capacity.  Consider “The Birth of a Nation” to be the antithesis to “Selma” two years ago.  This film’s depiction of violent retaliation reverberates far differently than Martin Luther King’s example of nonviolence.  Audiences will wrestle with that polar opposite being empowering or troubling in justification.  

The waters of rationalization are muddied further by the perceived misuse of rape, in terms of dramatic license versus fact-checked history, all being too parallel to Nate Parker’s own past rape allegations.  Playing very similar to a domestic “Braveheart” story in symbolism, mystic spirituality, and sacrificial martyrdom, “The Birth of a Nation” does veer between passion project and vanity project for Parker.  There is no questioning the blood, sweat, and tears Nate Parker throws into the role on-screen and the stewardship behind the camera.  His shouted Bible quotation duel with Mark Boone Junior’s white preacher will be his Oscar nomination clip if the voters allow it.  The fate of the film comes down to the capacity to look past the controversies, explore little-known and newly essential history, and, most of all, see the qualities of a film that deserve to be respected, not damned to other labels.     

LESSON #1: THE POWER OF LITERACY EDUCATION-- Literacy from any source, not just the Holy Bible, is empowering to the mind and spirit.  The absorption of content, culture, themes, morals, and more are incredibly impressionable to the reader.  Literacy has always been a gift and a door opener.

LESSON #2: WE ARE ALL BORN BEAUTIFUL-- Before the violence begets violence, there is an undeniable tone in the film that values the quality of life, regardless of race, color, or credo, even in the darkness of slavery.  In the same way war films are almost always anti-war films to a certain degree, the same goal resonates in films of racial oppression.  The message is to find empathy not grow or celebrate hate and bigotry.

LESSON #3: THE GOD OF LOVE AND THE GOD OF WRATH ARE THE SAME GOD-- After Cherry’s violation, Nat experiences a shift of assurance.  His loving hope is shattered to the point of discontent.  He begins to consider God’s call to fight, referencing and learning the lessons of David, Gideon, Joshua, and Samson.  The many examples of God’s wrath empower his new mission to fight the oppressors.