The Birth of a Nation
Directed by Nate Parker
Released October 7, 2016
Slavery is a truly awful part of America’s history, and its formative role in the early years of the country make it a frequent film subject. In 1915, director D.W. Griffith released the groundbreaking epic “The Birth of a Nation,” which, among other things, glorified the Ku Klux Klan. That formative film has strong cinematic qualities but a message that now goes against everything this nation stands for. That title is ripe for a more modern and productive reinterpretation, and that’s exactly what Nate Parker’s chronicle of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion aims to do.
Nat (Parker) is taught to read by the owner of his plantation as a child and grows up with a strong knowledge of the Bible and a knack for preaching. As he does his best to begin a life with a fellow slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), he finds himself taken to numerous plantations by the new master of the plantation, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), to preach to slaves treated inhumanely by their plantation overseers and inspire them to lead more obedient lives. As he attempts to spread the word of God, Nat soon realizes that those words have been corrupted by those who seek to legitimize evil and cannot stand idly by and watch it happen any longer.
Parker’s film presents a harrowing story of one man’s representative experience during a dark period in American’s history. Samuel is purposely not cast as a particularly harsh or vindictive white man, meant instead to symbolize the collective guilt of all those who would indulge in the shameful practice of slavery and the dehumanization of people based purely on the color of their skin. Nat, for the most part, does what he is told and feigns respect to those who have power over them, but the inner fury he possesses that he eventually externalizes is burning and building for the entirety of the film and his story.
Like other films set in the same era, “The Birth of a Nation” includes a handful of truly disturbing scenes that show the horrifying and unbearable misery suffered by those forced to endure slavery. Some of the staged speeches feel forced, but the film rallies for a powerful and hopeful story of rebellion anchored by Parker’s energy. It doesn’t quite have the staggering impact of “12 Years of Slave,” but it certainly has its own unique thunderous nature that makes it an important and momentous film.