There is no denying that Nate Parker, writer, director and Star of “Birth of a Nation” put his creative heart and soul into his directorial debut.
The ambitious historical drama follows a young slave minister named Nat Turner who led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The rebellion resulted in the deaths of around 60 whites and over 200 blacks in retaliation. Turner himself was caught and hung after two months on the run. The film was highly praised at this years Sundance Film Festival and was bought by Fox Searchlight Pictures for a record $17.5 million. There was some controversy surrounding the film as well, with Parker’s past and shots at the perceived divisiveness of the film.
The story opens with Turner as a young boy, the son of two slaves, being brought up in Southampton, Virginia, on a cotton plantation. He and his mother have been told that Nat will grow up to be “a prophet” and that he holds the signs of his ancestors. Nat’s father is caught stealing food by slave catchers and disappears from his life. Nat shows a natural affinity for books and is taught to read by Elizabeth Turner, (Penelope Ann Miller) matriarch of the plantation. Elizabeth gives him a bible and sets him on the path to become a man of God.
The story then transitions to Nat’s life as an adult on the plantation, and his affinity for preaching is noticed by Elizabeth’s son Samuel (Armie Hammer). Samuel, with his family in debt and in danger of losing his farm and family status, begins making Nat preach to slaves all over the county to ease any thoughts of rebellion among the slaves and to collect a fee to maintain the Turner plantation. Great care is taken in showing Samuel’s reluctance to use Nat in this way, and great care is also taken in showing his downward spiral of complicity with the system that has propped up his family for generations.
This is where the film and script hit their stride and drive home the uncomfortable truths of the time. Parker delivers a powerful performance as he preaches to the tortured slaves of the county to “obey their masters in all things from the good and kind to even the harsh masters.”
“Birth of a Nation” provides a gut wrenching display of humiliation and oppression. A scene in which a slave on hunger strike has his teeth removed by a hammer and is force fed is particularly excruciating.
Nat’s horror and rage simmers until his wife, Cherry, (Aja Naomi King) is raped by a group of white men. This is a turning point for Nat who begins to plot retaliation for his wife for the increasingly disconnected and abusive Samuel and for the system which keeps him oppressed.
It is here where the film reaches its apex, and unfortunately, its stumbling block. The rebellion begins with several violent sequences which seem to revel in their grind house feel without the necessary direction to stay focused on the films central messages. A bloody decapitation sequence with barely a word spoken of it is a particular offender.
For first time director Parker, the rebellion itself seemed to be the largest challenge of the script and the film. The actual Nat Turner rebellion contained enough material in only the violent action to warrant a film all its own, yet in “Birth of a Nation,” it is barely 20 minutes long and is burdened by an overly-cliche Braveheart-like final clash, which sees the rebels put down brutally by the U.S. army with Turner himself narrowly escaping.
After this, the film picks itself back up, and the script returns to its usual consistency. Turner speaks one more time with his wife and turns himself in but not before being mobbed and beaten by an angry crowd.
In the films final sequence, Turner is hung in front of a cheering crowd. As he dies, he looks toward the sky where an angel looks down upon him in the form a black women. Meanwhile, a young boy who betrayed Turner’s rebellion looks on. The scene transitions to the same boy fighting for the Union in the Civil War. The last few minutes of the film are largely a return to good form after the rocky portrayal of the rebellion, though, it too is plagued by a few amateurish cliches. A butterfly sitting on the body of a hanging black women is particularly indulgent as a symbolic visual.
Final Score: 7/10
Though marred with issues in direction and pacing in it’s last half, the raw passion and acting performance of Parker help propel “Birth of a Nation” to becoming a foremost film on the indie circuit with perhaps an Oscar nod.
“Birth of a Nation” will be showing at the Lyric Cinema Cafe, located on the north side of Old Town through October 13th.