Having nothing to do with the 1915 silent film of the same name, The Birth of a Nation tells the real life story of slave preacher Nat Turner played by Nate Parker (also serves as writer and director) who organized a violent slave uprising in Virginia in 1831. Nat is a simple man living under the control of landowner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who preaches to other plantation slaves in the area and begins to realize many of his people have it much worse than him. This leads to Nat opening his eyes to the many atrocities happening in the South and deciding something must be done about it.
There’s plenty of controversy offscreen surrounding The Birth of a Nation star and director Nate Parker, but for this review the focus will stay squarely on the film itself and its powerful story about a man who decides to break the chains and seek freedom for his people. Parker gives a unique interpretation of Turner who begins the film as a God-fearing man who does what he is told and tries not to rock the boat in a world where slaves are terribly mistreated. He is seen as one of the “Good Ones” by the deplorable land owners in the area who could care less if their help lives or dies as long as the fields of cotton are tended to. The audience sees Nat go from an attentive field hand to his master Samuel Turner to an individual who takes the scripture from the bible and uses it for his violent inspirations.
Parker delivers a character in Nat where you cringe at his actions even though you know his motives are totally justified. Turner gives the downtrodden members of his flock spiritual inspiration to keep going when the hand of the master is heavy, yet takes the violent route to ensure his family, friends and fellow slaves never feel the sting of the whip again. The rebellion is inspiring, spiritual and brutal as Nat flips the script in the Bible and takes the same harsh approach bestowed on his people by the evil masters and gives the same treatment to their families and the things they hold near and dear to their heart. Nat is not Dr. King marching peacefully down the street delivering his message, but his acts of violent rage helped paved the way for the equal rights movement in the many years to come.
Speaking of the violence and brutality of Nat’s rebellion, The Birth of a Nation doesn’t hold back when it comes to the bloodshed depicted on both sides of the slavery issue on-screen. Parker delivers some powerful images to the audience that will have you looking away as people are horribly mistreated by their fellow-man. Heads are smashed, machetes slice through slave owners and even a railroad spike is used to get a rebellious slave to eat. The unthinkable actions are hard to watch, but needed to show how such a polite young man like Turner could pick up a knife and decide violence is the only answer.
The Birth of a Nation is no doubt a visceral experience, but it’s not without its faults. At times Parker can’t decide if Birth‘s message is one of spirituality, inspiration, bloody revenge or all of the above. This combination doesn’t mix well at times, but it’s tough to balance delivering a message of hope for the future when people are getting lynched and used as sex slaves on the big screen. Also it takes a good bit for The Birth of a Nation to find its stride. The rebellion doesn’t happen until the third act and the first two acts are spent showing the evil of man. This exposition is needed to understand Nat’s violent turn, but there’s no denying The Birth of a Nation is full of slow moments for the first hour and 15 minutes.
Compared to Best Picture winner 12 Years of Slave which mostly recently tackled the slavery subject, The Birth of a Nation is a few steps behind when it comes to overall quality. Parker sometimes gets lost in his own artistic vision, but there’s no denying his lead performance as Turner. The Birth of a Nation is one of the few instances where the director of the film actually bails himself out by giving a strong performance in the lead as a nice man forced to raise his fist in order to do what he feels is right.
Overall, I give The Birth of a Nation 3 out of 4 stars.
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