Powerful 'Birth of a Nation' Mixes Historical Drama & Brutal Violence
Why 2016 is the perfect year to tell the story of Nat Turner's rebellion.
"With the strength of our Father we'll cut the head off the serpent. We'll destroy them all." And so begins Nat Turner's rebellion, the bloody slave uprising of 1831 that sent shockwaves of fear throughout the state of Virginia and gave a shackled people their first taste of hope in decades. The rebellion didn't last long, but its legacy lives today in The Birth of a Nation, the passion project of actor Nate Parker who plays Turner and also co-wrote and directed the film. It's a brutal look at slavery through the eyes of one of the most famous slaves ever and it couldn't be more timely.
The year 2016 seems to exist in a vacuum of spacetime, stuck in neutral as we await the end of the most embarrassing Presidential election of all time. The rise of Donald Trump has pushed the racist, ignorant populace of America to the front lines and confirmed that, while slavery ended more than a century ago, the country still has a long way to go when it comes to race. It's 2016 and we have a presidential nominee saying shit like "Look at my African-American over here. Look at him!" Trump and his league of followers should be first in line to see this film.
How can America ever recover from its bloody history? This country was built on the backs of slaves like Nat Turner and there are still people today blissfully unaware of what that means, and how today generations of white families are still enjoying the benefits of that ignominious arrangement. Are reparations in order, as Ta-Nahisi Coates once eloquently proposed? Something's got to give. In the meantime, films like The Birth of a Nation remain entirely important. It should be shown in schools to young children so they know and never forget. Start with the Trump kids.
If the title of Parker's film sounds familiar, it's because D.W. Griffith used the same title for his technically marvelous, but racist and KKK-glorifying silent epic of 1915. Parker has taken the title to redefine the term. Time will tell if it works.
The film opens in 1809 Virginia to the beat of tribal drums and young Nat playing with Samuel Turner, a white boy his age and the son of the plantation owner who owns Nat and his mother, Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis). The boys' friendship lands Nat a place in the Turner's library, where Sam's mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) encourages Nat to learn to read, a skill that indirectly leads to the rebellion decades later.
Parker spends a short time in the past before flashing forward to the 1820s. Nat, now a man, spends his days in the ocean of cotton fields on the Turner plantation along with his mother and grandmother (the amazing Esther Scott). The film's lasting image is a helicopter shot that scans the fluffy white fields below. It's a haunting, unforgettable sequence free of violence that immediately conveys the hopelessness of slave life.
Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), now fully grown with a set of disgusting teeth, makes Nat his right-hand slave. Nat accompanies his former friend-turned-master on trips to buy new cotton pickers and his literacy allows him to moonlight as a preacher. Nat spends his days looking away. When whites address him directly, he stares at his feet before carefully answering. Parker, for his part, captures the fear within Turner in these early scenes. It's part of a masterful performance that sways from docile to furious and back again. By the end, he's looking everyone square in the eye.
What opens Nat's eyes most are his trips to other plantations. Samuel, in an effort to placate his substantial drinking habit, agrees to allow Nat to give sermons to other slaves in the area for money. Nat agrees to it, but quickly realizes he's being asked to betray his own people. The white slave masters demand Nat preach, but he must preach docility. Nat does and he bears witness to what happens to insubordinate slaves.
As in The Color Purple, 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, and other films that take place in the antebellum southern United States, The Birth of a Nation doesn't flinch when it comes to portraying the violence of the time. It's too much for Turner to handle. It would be too much for anyone. He comes home one day to find his beautiful wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) beaten unrecognizable because she was yards outside the Turner property line. He watches in horror as a fasting slave on another plantation has his teeth broken in and is force-fed with a funnel. Turner himself is whipped into unconsciousness. His friends die, his people die. They hang from trees like silent wind chimes. The wife (Gabrielle Union) of Nat's friend (Colman Domingo) on the Turner plantation is given to a houseguest for sex like a piece of meat. Nat sees more than his share and he's ready for vengeance.
It's Turner's faith that spurns his rebellion, an ironic twist for the whites who taught him to read. He cites scripture ("Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has..." Samuel 15:3) and waits for a sign from God (an eclipse) before mobilizing a group of 70 slaves and, moving from plantation to plantation, murdering entire families in righteous revenge. The final act is a staggering, poignant answer to Quentin Tarantino's Django which uses cartoon violence to nullify the impact of a slave killing dozens of white folks. In Birth of a Nation, you feel that impact without nullification. I wanted to jump out of my seat and cheer when Nat's sword finds a dumbass hick white man's brain to split open. If anyone deserves it...
Parker's film is a delicate combination of history and sensationalism. It stands easily between 12 Years a Slave and Django as a weighty historical drama while satisfying our bloodlust for those heartless slave owners that put generations of blacks in bondage. Technically, the movie is sound, if without a true signature. Parker's directorial vision is fleeting, some sequences don't quite fit, and others seem shot in a rush. It doesn't have the artistic integrity of 12 Years, but it's not far off.
In the end, the film works on multiple levels. It's especially well cast. Parker and King are both Oscar-worthy and the inclusions of actors like Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Junior and Dwight Henry are glorious. If you want to watch The Birth of a Nation as if it were an action movie, you could. It works that way. But, knowing the history of Turner's rebellion and the current state of affairs as we mercifully enter the final weeks of election 2016 will truly enhance your filmgoing experience.