Nate Parker's challenging, sure to be controversial The Birth of a Nation arrives at a time when Hollywood is being skewered for its lack of diversity and unwillingness to tell powerful African-American stories. So it's especially courageous of Parker to mount a film that positions Nat Turner, the infamous slave rebellion leader who helped murder dozens of whites in 1831, as a hero to be revered. But that's what he's done, and Hollywood has responded with the biggest deal ever struck in Sundance's history.
While that is a remarkable achievement, Parker deserves high praise for the quality of the film itself, because this is an ambitious effort for even the most seasoned filmmaker. For a directorial debut it's practically unheard of to take on a subject that has been interpreted, misinterpreted, revered and demagogued about. The truth is that the film is made all the more powerful by what Parker went through to get it done, sacrificing the last two years of his acting career, plus a substantial sum of his own money to fill a gap that Hollywood's power players didn't seem interested in filling.
What will come as a surprise to some is that the film isn't about Turner's two-day rebellion in Southampton, VA. Parker chooses to explore the man rather than his actions, deftly circumventing any discussions about the defensibility of his later actions. Beginning with a Thomas Jefferson quote about God's justice, the film is largely an examination of spirituality's power to inspire, in particular the use of the Bible as justification for acts of good or ill. Parker lays forth a compelling narrative of Turner's life, beginning at childhood when he learns of his destiny as a instrument of God. Later on he witnesses his father's killing of a white man and subsequent flight from justice. He also befriends eventual slave master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who appears to be of a milder temperament than many of the other whites eager to beat, rape, and harm a black any chance they get. He uses this relationship with Samuel to secure himself a wife ( Aja Naomi King) and have a child, but that destiny of greatness seems far out of reach.
Able to read and learned in the gospel, whites would hire Nat to preach to their slaves and help quell potential revolt. It's during these speeches that rage began to build within him, and a fierce need to inspire dissent began to charge his fiery rhetoric. As Turner, Parker inhabits the terrible conflict boiling within him, that he must use the Bible's words of peace as a means of pacifying his fellow slaves, when that's not truly what he believes. After a brutal whipping, shot almost identically to Kunta Kinte's savage torture in Roots, Turner begins to look at the Bible from a different perspective, saying "For every verse they use to support our bondage, there’s another one demanding our freedom.”
The power of Turner's convictions seems to be fueling Parker's performance and treatment of the material, which serves as an interesting counter to the more-polished 12 Years A Slave's quiet brutality. The Birth of a Nation isn't all that violent, at least when compared to other slavery dramas. Instead it presents a morally corrosive world of dark contradictions, where those who claim to be god-fearing are the most godless. "The last shall be first, the first shall be last", Turner proclaims during one of his impassioned speeches.
Those who have already check-marked the film as an obvious Oscar contender so that we never get another #OscarsSoWhite fiasco may want to cool their heels. While Parker is tremendously charismatic and passionate as Turner, his inexperience as a director still shows in some of the smaller details. The film is clearly designed for broad audience appeal, and as such it plays out in conventional beats. Granted, some of this could be the lack of real information about much of Turner's life, so the blank spaces were filled with familiar tropes. An encounter early on with a violent slaver (Jackie Earle Haley) inevitably leads to a bloody showdown later on during Turner's rebellion, which is presented in a slo-motion battle that looks like Braveheart and Glory were used as templates. Clearly shot on a shoestring, Parker's use of ropey special effects to depict his ancestors' spirits is a poor decision that hopefully will be edited out in future cuts. Parker makes other choices that show his ultimate skill and confidence behind the camera. He juggles differing tones and genres like a pro, crafting lovely romantic scenes between Turner and his wife, to the viciousness of the ultimate showdown at the Jerusalam armory. While it's a little disappointing there isn't a more substantive look at the ramifications of Turner's revolt, the one scene we do get is nothing short of haunting in its uplifting glimpse of the future. His decision to not show the killings in a more graphic way only cements Parker's desire for the film to be more accessible, which isn't necessarily a bad thing or surprising given the goal to get it in front of as many eyes as possible.
That goal is within reach now, and Parker seems poised for greatness whether The Birth of a Nation winds up the Oscar picture many expect it to be. Whatever its fate, the film is a heroic accomplishment that tells one of the great unsung black stories with all of the justice it deserves.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5