A young slave boy is taken into the Big House by the kind wife of his owner. She teaches him to read – the Bible is the only book allowed him – and he grows into a man of God. But, the brutality of slavery wears down Nat Turner (Nate Parker) and in 1831 he led a band of slaves and free blacks to take revenge on their oppressive white masters in “The Birth of a Nation.”
The films director-producer-writer-star Nate Parker makes his feature debut with the story of a literate slave who, after seeing and experiencing the horrors of slavery for decades, gathered a few trusted fellow slaves to discuss insurrection. A man of visions, Turner, feels that God has chosen him to break the yoke of slavery in Southampton Virginia. The rebellion lasted but two days, but the repercussion from the white slave owners lasted months and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of slaves and free blacks, mainly by lynching.
Director Parker takes his time to slowly build to the climactic battle of the races. When a field hand dies, Nat is returned to the cotton fields and we see the boy become a man. During those years he fervently reads the bible and becomes a preacher for other slaves. The son of his deceased owner, Sam Turner (Armie Hammer), is in financial trouble and, knowing Nat’s religious fervor, lends him out, at a price, to other slave owners to preach to their slaves and calm the growing unrest.
But, the inhuman treatment he witnesses – in one chilling scene, he watches helplessly as a chained slave who refuses to eat has his teeth smashed so he can be force fed – galvanize Nat to become a leader. When he witnesses a solar eclipse, he takes it as a divine sign and begins his plans for what would be called Nat Turner’s Rebellion in the history books.
As I said, “The Birth of a Nation” builds to its climax slowly, making it plod along as one straw after another is put upon Turner's back until it finally breaks. These many last straws make for a series of horrific “had enough” episodes for Turner and it was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. The repetition made me impatient for what I knew was coming – the insurrection.
As “The Birth of the Nation” plays out, I had the very strong feeling that much of the film stayed on the cutting room floor. This makes for a lack of depth that Oscar winner “Twelve Years a Slave” had in it portrayal of antebellum Southern slavery. Sure, “Birth” deftly depicts the plight of Black slaves in 1831 and the violence is wincing. But, where “Twelve Years” creates well defined characters, Nate Parker’s opus is more about brutality than humanity. It is an earnest first effort by its multi-hyphenate creator. I give it a B-.
As a young boy in 1809, Nat Turner knew enough to keep his mouth shut when runaway slave hunter Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley, "Little Children," AMC's 'Preacher') came asking questions about his daddy. He also knew to hide the fact that he could read, but the lady of the house, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller, "The Freshman"), learned of it and encouraged it - as long as he stuck to the Bible. Years later, with her son, his master (and former childhood playmate) Samuel (Armie Hammer, "The Social Network"), facing economic struggles, Nat's (Nate Parker, "Non-Stop," "Beyond the Lights") preaching abilities are used to bring in income while keeping neighboring plantations' slaves in line, but the atrocities Nat witnesses spark the rebellious spirit that's been on a slow simmer in "The Birth of a Nation."
Cowriter (with Jean McGianni Celestin)/director/star Nate Parker's film was rapturously received at a post #OscarsSoWhite Sundance, but recently his name's been in the news not because of his film, but because of the 1999 Penn State rape case he and his cowriter were acquitted of. What is the statute of limitations on forgiveness for something done years ago in their youth when he has seemingly set himself right? Would people be more willing to forgive if time had been served, as actor Danny Trejo did for murder, robbery and assault? Why aren't people in an uproar over the Hollywood child abuse ring that continues unabated? On the other hand, it is noteworthy that Parker's Nat Turner doesn't boil over when his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King, "Damsels in Distress") is raped and beaten (a fictional addition), nor when his master brings Esther (Gabrielle Union, "Bring It On," "Top Five") into the house at the request of a visiting slave owner. Planning for the uprising only begins in this story after Nat himself is whipped for baptizing a white man. On the other hand, Nat Turner only confessed to killing one person, Margret Whitehead, whereas this Nat Turner only kills men that have been set up as bad guys (Margret Whitehead is not a character in Parker's film, although she was pivotal in William Styron's controversial 1967 novel, 'The Confessions of Nat Turner,' which Parker has condemned).
So, what about the movie itself? It starts strong then takes too long to build to an abbreviated, muddled climax. It is an important part of American history and Parker himself is fierce and intelligent as Turner, but his protagonist is too perfect, lacking the flaws instead found in his film (named after D.W. Griffith's silent movie infamous for lionizing the Ku Klux Klan and demonizing black men).
After a prologue in which an elder notes three marks on the young Turner's body (which we never see again) denoting him a leader and prophet, life on the Turner plantation appears relatively peaceful in prosperity. But as the years progress when a field hand dies, Sam demotes Nat from his house position out into the cotton fields to perform back breaking, skin tearing labor under the hot sun. Sam is decent enough to defend Nat against an unjust attack (a man is incensed that the slave handed a dropped toy to his wife, daring to address her), but his response to his mounting debts is to crawl into a whiskey bottle. Sam Turner is a man less intelligent than his slave who holds onto his principles as long as it doesn't cost him.
This becomes evident as Sam brings Nat to other, poorer, plantations. Both men witness two slaves on a hunger strike, their hands shackled above their heads in a dim shed. One man's teeth are tapped out with a chisel in order to more easily force feed him. Sam appears uncomfortable, but says nothing other than to instruct Nat to preach his sermon to the working slaves. As Nat continues to witness the horrors inflicted on fellow men, he begins pouring through his Bible and realizes that for every passage advising compliance to one's master, there is another about fighting against injustice. Then the real problems with Parker's film begin. There is an old white man requesting baptism (one cast with an actor too close in resemblance to Mark Boone Junior, who plays the Reverend Walthall here). Elizabeth Turner advises Nat against it, fearing retaliation against him, but leaves the decision to his own moral compass. Parker gives the scenario great urgency, but we have no idea who this man is nor why it is imperative that his baptism be performed with such haste. Elizabeth's fears are proven, Sam so outraged, he flogs Nat himself. Nat holds a secret meeting now preaching violent rebellion. As they attack a plantation, there is an inexplicable betrayal (by a child later used by Parker to symbolize Turner's legacy). Their numbers grown, they invade an armory, but they are anticipated, the crates they expect to be filled with weapons instead packed with rocks. Most are killed on the spot. The ensuing retaliations are brutal (again, we only see the aftermath, set to Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit.' Then Nat Turner simply walks into a town and is arrested...
Parker's period production is fine, Henry Jackman's ("Captain America: Civil War") effective score comprised of chorales and marches. But Parker appears to have lost his nerve as a director at the pivotal moment, the full horror of Turner's rebellion too muted, a cutaway to a tearful Elizabeth Turner confusing Parker's message. "The Birth of a Nation" isn't a bad film, but one comes away from it feeling Nat Turner's story still needs to be told.
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