“The Birth of a Nation”: story of slavery revolt is flawed but striking

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Courtesy of The Birth of a Nation movie

“The Birth of a Nation” welcomed controversy from the beginning, as it shares its name with a silent film from 1915. The older version of “Birth of a Nation,” set during and after the Civil War, used actors in blackface and glorified the Ku Klux Klan but is considered one of the most important and influential American films. I understand what the title means for the 1915 version. The film tells the story of a country rebuilding itself after a long and bloody war. However, I don’t understand what “The Birth of a Nation” means in the context of this new film by director/writer/producer/star Nate Parker. Perhaps he just didn’t want the title to continue to belong to a film that is essentially a white supremacy propaganda piece.

Setting all personal bias with Parker and confusion with the title aside, this new “Birth of a Nation” is certainly effective and at times shocking and provocative, but rough around the edges. The story of the 1831 slave rebellion orchestrated by Nat Turner (played in the film by Parker) is a story worth telling, and Parker’s telling has passion and momentum but doesn’t live up to its full potential.

The story begins in Nat’s childhood, where he is told around a campfire that he will be a leader and a prophet. We see events that have an effect on him later in life, the most important being his father escaping after killing a slave catcher. Soon after, Nat is taught to read by his master’s wife, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), who shows Nat kindness–or something like it–throughout his life. Nat is childhood friends with her son Samuel (played as an adult by Armie Hammer) and Nat has a more comfortable existence than slaves on other plantations. But no life as a slave will ever be comfortable, and Nat comes to realize this when he gets older.

The only book Nat is allowed to read is the Bible, and this causes him to be very religious and act as a preacher for his fellow slaves on the Turner plantation. After his father dies, Samuel Turner now owns the plantation, and finds himself falling on hard times. As a solution, a reverend recommends that Samuel have Nat preach for fellow slaves on other plantations, slaves whose masters have deemed them rowdy and disobedient. Through these visits Nat sees the true horrors of slavery, culminating in a harrowing scene where he and Samuel witness a slave on a hunger strike get his teeth knocked out and force fed through a funnel.

Turner’s anger at what he sees results in a rebellion in the final half hour of the film. Historically, Turner and his fellow slaves killed over 60 white men, women and children. The film doesn’t show the killings in detail. We see white men die bloody deaths, but no one else. It seems that Parker didn’t want his audience to actually see Turner as a complex figure. His version is a sort-of warrior saint. The real Turner killed 10 children in their school and made a woman stare at her husband’s mangled body before shooting her point blank. Even then, what other way could slaves have made a statement? While Turner and his fellow slaves killed women and children, white slave owners violated women and worked children to death. Whether what Turner did was the morally ethical course of action is an interesting conversation to have, but Parker doesn’t want to.

The scenes of the mistreatment of slaves have a different tone than that of “12 Years a Slave,” a movie this one has inevitably been compared to. In “12 Years a Slave,” those types of scenes were presented as climaxes, drawn out and shown to maximum emotional effect. In “Birth of a Nation,” those scenes are just as effective, as we see them matter-of-factly, driving home the idea that this was simply a way of life. Men are whipped and women are taken advantage of. This way of showing those scenes makes sense for the story. This is a story of defiance, not of suffering.

Parker is a strong actor but less strong of a director. He relies on questionable cutaways, most notably when Turner’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is assaulted by slave catchers and we cut to a husk of corn that begins to literally bleed. During what should be powerful moments in Turner’s life, we see his wife appearing as angel. It would be more effective if she wasn’t wearing angel wings that look like they came from a Halloween costume store. It’s cheesy and took me out of the film when I should have been immersed.

Even so, there were images that haunted me. Parker is good in close ups, showing the glints in peoples’ dark eyes as well as the textures and scars on their faces. When Turner is visiting another plantation, he sees two little girls run by. One girl is white, and has a rope around the neck of the slave girl who runs behind her. It was a simple but compelling moment. In a dream sequence, a Nat as a young boy runs through a foggy forest, chased by white men in black hooded robes. The young Nat comes across his older self, nearly naked and covered head-to-toe in white war paint.

The last stretch of the film showing the aftermath of the rebellion is the most shocking. Historically, over 200 African-Americans, both slaves and free, were murdered in response to the rebellion. The film shows this in a devastating sequence set to “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching song sung by Nina Simone. The pairing of a slow pull away shot of six African-Americans hanging from a tree with Simone’s harsh, deep alto talking of “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,” is overwhelming and arresting but the best choice Parker made as director.

Parker also gets strong performances out of his supporting cast. Hammer’s work as Samuel is one of stronger of his career. Samuel is obviously shaken by what he sees with Nat, but the pressure of the society he lives in causes him to end up a drunken, mean mess. Miller, as Samuel’s mother, is the most sympathetic of the white characters, and her brief scenes with Parker show that Elizabeth genuinely cares for Nat and his family. King, as Cherry, is very good with her lovely smile and expressive face, but gets sidelined after her assault. Gabrielle Union plays Esther, who is also assaulted when a house guest of Samuel asks for her. Union is in two scenes and has no lines, but was also the reason behind the one time I cried in the film. She creates something out of nothing, and it is incredible. Colman Domingo, as Esther’s husband and Nat’s friend Hark, exudes warmth and magnetism. Jackie Earle Haley, who was the best part of Zack Snyder’s 2008 superhero flick “Watchmen,” is quite scary as slave catcher Raymond Cobb. As Nat’s mother and grandmother, respectively, Aunjanue Ellis and Esther Scott are fantastic but underused.

My biggest problem with this film is with its script, which was written by Parker with Jean McGianni Celestin. When Cherry is assaulted, it is a horrible and sad moment. We see the aftermath, her swollen face and bruised body. We see Nat’s devastating reaction. At this point we understand the horrible extent to which slave women were mistreated. Then, not even half an hour of film goes by, and Samuel has a dinner party and a guest, noticing the pretty Esther serving them, asks to be alone with her. We don’t see the act, but when Esther emerges from the house, bursts into tears and falls into the arms of her husband, we know what happened. While both moments are effective in their own right, did we really need to have two women be violated within maybe 20 minutes of each other? Esther’s character never shows up again for the rest of the story, we never see her recover or talked about, not even by her husband Hark. Why have such an awful thing happen to her if the story wasn’t going to go anywhere with it?

The script makes the violation of Cherry into one of the main things that drives Nat to rebellion. But history has a different story. Not only is it not even confirmed historically that Nat had a wife (there are documents saying that he was married to a woman named Cherry on his plantation but he never talks of her in his writings), but Turner’s own words state that he was driven to rebellion simply by divine purpose. He had visions of God and of his ancestors, bringing to mind Joan of Arc, who was also driven to act by godly visions and eventually died for her cause.

Ultimately, this film is not without a heart. Parker is better known as an actor, and he didn’t accept any further roles until he could get the movie made. He invested his own money, and made this film in 27 days. Parker told the story he wanted to tell, and while his version of events is often fascinating and poetic, I can’t help but feel as if this could have been incendiary and thought-provoking. It could have been talked about for what was actually in the film, rather than talked about because of the previous actions of the man who made it.


Final Verdict: 8 out of 10

Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity

Director: Nate Parker

Cast: Nate Parker, Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Colman Domingo, Tony Espinosa, Mark Boone Junior, Aunjanue Ellis, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Katie Garfield, Dwight Henry.