The Birth of a Nation: A Flawed, but Compelling Telling of an Infamous Insurrection
Nat Turner’s rebellion is one of those events that just about every student in America has studied at one point or another. It certainly wasn’t the only rebellion of its kind, but it is probably the most well-known, particularly for the fact that it led to the most deaths of any slave uprisings in the Southern United States (55-65). However, for the slaves, the death toll ended up much higher, with totals reaching as high as 256 thanks in large part to retaliation. It’s an important part of American history, an event that seems ripe for a powerful cinematic telling, but who would be the right person to bring it to the big screen?
In steps a relatively unknown actor by the name of Nate Parker, who had only written and directed a couple of short films, to not only star in the film, but also to direct, write, and produce it as well. That’s a lot for anyone to handle, especially when it’s their first time doing the latter three for a feature film. That being said, knowing the importance of the material, there was no doubt an extra incentive to make sure that the story be told as faithfully and respectfully as possible. The result is Nate Parker’s intriguingly-titled “The Birth of a Nation.”
The film begins with Nat Turner as a child, growing up a slave on a plantation that eventually comes under the ownership of Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). As Nat (Nate Parker) grows older, he marries a young slave by the name of Cherry (Aja Naomi King), whom his master purchased as a present for his wife (Penelope Ann Miller). Nat also learns to become a preacher thanks to Mrs. Turner teaching him all about the Bible. It’s this skill that eventually brings him into demand, as other plantation owners pay Mr. Turner to have Nat preach to their slaves. On this “preaching tour,” he witnesses some terrible sites that start him thinking that a rebellion may be the only way to put an end to the horrors of slavery. And so, after waiting until the time is right, Nat and a small group of fellow slaves begin their quest, a quest that puts all of their lives and those of their loved ones in great jeopardy.
This is the kind of film that you expect to start out somewhat slow as it fills you in on Nat Turner’s background, and indeed it does. It’s important to know where he came from and what events would mold him into the man he would become, especially those that might have contributed to his thoughts of rebellion. However, it’s rather unusual for the film to continue on in this manner for as long as it does. Even as we watch Nat reach adulthood, the film still struggles with its pace, dwelling for a long time on certain events and taking a while to get to the main part of the tale.
That’s not to say that there aren’t strong parts to be found in this section, which encompasses about the first half of the film (or perhaps even a little more), for there certainly are. For one thing, the film is filled with some rather startling imagery, including instances of violence that demonstrate the brutality that Nat witnessed and was subject to himself. For instance, while on his preaching tour, he is forced to watch as a slave has his teeth chiseled out by a sadistic owner simply because the slave refused to eat. Another piece of imagery has a young white girl prancing along with a rope leashed around a young black girl’s neck. It’s a disturbing, vile image that has just as powerful an impact as a shocking act of violence.
Other times we aren’t even privy to the acts being committed, leaving our imaginations to wander at how terrible the event was. This includes the brutal beating of one of the main characters, the aftermath of which we do see in all its horror, and another character being forced to have relations with a slave owner. We may not see these things happen, but their impact is felt just the same.
Eventually we do come to the rebellion itself, and while it may seem like a pretty short section of the overall film, you have to recall that the insurrection lasted less than two days before it was ultimately put down. It’s told in a straightforward manner, with a plethora of dead bodies on both sides, and while it does come to an end rather quickly, it still makes for a mostly powerful telling of the bloody revolt. No doubt Parker could have been a little more thorough in his covering of the events (and indeed, the film might have been a little better for it), but what we get is still satisfying enough.
Parker is to be commended for not only delivering a fine turn as Nat Turner, but also for skillfully bringing the entire project together. Again, having so much responsibility on one’s shoulders for their first feature film would be incredibly overwhelming, and yet, he’s shown that he was definitely up to the challenge. “The Birth of a Nation” is certainly not without its flaws, mainly due to issues in pacing and storytelling, but one has to give credit where it’s due, for with a strong cast and a powerful narrative, it’s got just enough to make it worth exploring. 3/4 stars.
Starts tonight in theaters everywhere.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.