120 min | R
A movie about slavery is never easy to watch. The better ones, such as Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave, make you furious at the injustice and leave you in disbelief that something so awful could have occurred. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t reach that level of fury, but it is a compelling story about a slave who led an uprising that killed 60 white people in 1831 Virginia. Like 12 Years, it’s based on a true story.
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is a field slave. As a child he was taught to read the Bible by the matriarch (Penelope Ann Miller) at his plantation, and now he regularly leads fellow slaves in prayer. He’s pretty good at it. So good that his owner Samuel Turner rents him out to preach at nearby plantations.
As far as slave owners go, the Turners aren’t bad. They don’t demean, urinate on, or sleep with their slaves. When Nat ventures out and sees the conditions in which other slaves live, however, he’s appalled. He sees his figurative brothers and sisters in tattered rags, being verbally abused, and in one instance, a man who refuses to eat gets his teeth knocked out before food is funneled down his throat. Later, a visiting plantation owner rapes a friend’s wife, and Nat is whipped for doing what he believes is the Lord’s work.
Through it all the Bible is Nat’s guide, and he feels blessed to have a loving wife and daughter. Yet he also believes God wants him to do something about the horrible social wrong of slavery, so he leads a rebellion.
Movies are a reflection of the time and society in which they’re made, and people will rightly derive racial tension and inequality from The Birth of a Nation. But will people also make the connection that using the Bible to justify murder, as Nat does, could be seen as similar to modern-day Muslim extremists using the Koran for the same purpose? Even if they have a valid reason (and slaves certainly do), making heroes of people who murder in the name of religion—as opposed to doing it just for vengeance—is a dangerous message to send.
The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, is top notch production wise, with the costumes, design and cinematography evoking a sense of the era. The performances are sufficient, especially Parker, who also serves as the film’s producer, director and co-writer. The story is aimless at times, with one awful thing happening after another and no sign of change in sight. It gets there eventually, of course.
The title is taken from D.W. Griffith’s controversial film (1915), which both set the precedent for modern filmmaking and is a deeply unsettling tribute to the KKK in the Reconstruction South. Parker’s intention here, no doubt, is to re-appropriate the title with a narrative in which African-Americans rise up for the sake of their own. What Parker accomplishes is debatable, but hopefully the message of unity, not violence, is what perseveres.