Nate Parker, center, as Nat Turner in
"The Birth of a Nation."
By George M. Thomas
Taken merely as a biopic, THE BIRTH OF A NATION offers nothing new.
Taken purely as movie about slavery, it offers nothing we’ve not seen before.
However, when you scratch the surface, THE BIRTH OF A NATION maps a sociological course to the present day. Therein lays its appeal for some.
Although the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia is a formidable one worth telling, it probably could have been told better than presented by Nate Parker’s version.
But it feels as if Parker isn’t much interested in telling a tale from the past as much as using it to illustrate what’s happening in the here and now regarding racism, bigotry, and to a certain degree, religion.
Movies that deal with the subject of American slavery are far from new. The joke in Hollywood is that that’s the surest route for an African-American actor to be nominated for or win an Oscar. I don’t agree with that sentiment, but when you think of Denzel Washington in GLORY, it’s one of those things that make you go “hmmmm.”
Turner (Nate Parker) is a slave with the benevolent master who happened to be a childhood friend – if there was such a thing back then. As a child the divine touched him, or so his mother and those close to him believe. In adulthood, he becomes the farm preacher and gains a reputation for being able to keep his fellow slaves in check.
He gains a reputation throughout the Virginia county in which he lives, so much so that a local clergyman comes calling on his master, Sam (Armie Hammer), and lures them into going from farm to farm with Nate to preach the gospel of submission to other slaves.
What it teaches him is about the cruelty he may not face first hand, but can see in the eyes of others to whom he serves as a false prophet.
Prophecy has told Nat and his family that he’s destined to lead. And after witnessing the horrors of his fellow slaves, including the rape of his and his friend’s wives and the overall brutality of America’s original sin, he answers that “calling.”
It wasn’t difficult to see what Parker attempts to do in that regard. In many respects the behaviors he shows are meant to connect to some injustices related to police brutality and the destruction of the nuclear family, among other issues.
However, unless they explicitly state so in an interview, a filmmaker’s motivations are often left open to interpretation.
In that regard, Parker gives his audience much latitude. Personally, THE BIRTH OF A NATION’s rumination on the supernatural and religion stuck with me days after leaving the theater. Then again, the African-American community’s relationship with Christianity has always left me puzzled.
Then there’s no escaping the controversy that surrounds the film because of allegations of rape for Parker was tried and acquitted. It gives a couple of the film’s scenes a rather spooky feel to them.
What THE BIRTH OF A NATION ultimately is will be in the eye of the beholder. I cannot call it a masterpiece or a grand revelation, but I can give it credit for making me think. Given the movie year so far? I’ll take that.
Movie: THE BIRTH OF A NATION
Director: Nate Parker
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union, Jackie Earle Haley, Aunjanue Ellis
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Rated: R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.
Running time: 120 minutes
George’s rating: 2.5-of-4 stars