by Kevin Muller
After much hype from Sundance, where it won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards, Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” has finally dropped upon us. How well will the true story of a slave who decides that enough is enough and decides to have a mini uprising, that resulted in the death of many innocent whites play with audiences? Parker, who is the writer, director, and star, has said this was a passion project for him. It was one that took him close to a decade to bring to the big screen. Was all his hustle and hard work worth it?
First off, this isn’t a remake of the 1915 film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Any sense of mockery you might think is being played on is 100% right. Parker has said that the decision to have that as the title of his film is basically the first, of many, middle fingers that he gives to those who enslaved his ancestors. In his film, Nat Turner lives with a family that treats him somewhat as an equal. He is actually friends with Samuel Turner, the son of the Turner Plantation, where he lives and works. The young slave is even given the chance to learn how to read by the wife of the owner. Elizabeth Turner pushes the bible on young Nat in belief that all the other novels that sit on the family bookshelf, are deemed a waste of time since young Nat won’t understand the problems and thoughts of white people. She may not know that she has just planted a seed in the development of who he will become. When he grows into a young man, he still enjoys his friendship with Samuel and Elizabeth. Samuel is very protective of his help, who he sees more of as a friend. Elizabeth shows up at many of his sermons and looks on with pride that he has connected with God and can read. Of course, his gift of speech and a religious upbringing gets soiled by local plantation owners. They want him to come in and keep their slaves in line by preaching that they must obey their masters according to the word of the Lord. At first, Samuel only lets this slide since the family farm, which he has taken over, is starting to lose its value. An obedient Nat starts to break when he sees the pain that he is letting his fellow men live in. He then starts to put together a revolution of fellow slaves to fight back.
Parker is a triple threat in this film. As an actor he gives Nat such power and a strong will. When he decides to preach a sermon that tells his fellow slaves that change is coming through any means possible, it is a powerful scene. It isn’t only the visual evidence that we have seen to this point that gives meaning to that scene but you can feel this was the scene that Parker probably built the whole movie on. It is the scene that he felt the electricity, as we do when it happens, when he typed it in his screenplay. The screenplay is incredibly layered and full of memorable moments. What stands out is his analyzation of religion. He shows how religion can give someone have purpose but also be turned into a weapon. One great scene shows Nat getting into an argument with slave owners about the bible. Every time they try to justify their behavior he recites a verse to show what they are doing is wrong and him fighting back is acceptable. It isn’t the weapons, the uprising, or violence that scares them the most, but the fact he is charismatic, intelligent, and resourceful. Parker shows all the brutal truths of the lifestyle that we have seen many times: the rape, whipping, and destruction of hope.
Some of the shots do go for the heart a bit too hard, but they are still damn powerful. Parker goes for the visual poetry angle and sometimes goes a bit overboard. One directorial choice that is quite interesting is how he uses Samuel and slave capturer, Raymond Cobb, to show the difference between the evilness of white people. While Cobb, played well by Jackie Earl Haley, is a man born with hate in his heart, Samuel’s journey is a bit more tragic. Samuel succumbs to the sin of greed. He also is a coward who sacrifices his goodness and friendship with Nat. The destruction of the relationship is well played out and feels real. In too many films, this aspects fails to catch on due to either the acting or the fact it feels too rushed. Here, the right amount of time is spent to sell this right. Hammer, who after 2010’s “The Social Network” seemed to be a fluke of an actor is fantastic here. Even though you feel the same disappointment and shame, as his mother does, for the character, he gives Samuel such empathy. You sort of feel sorry for him that he has become a shell of his former self and that is the sign of a great performance.
The real subject to look at is Turner himself. Of course, Parker leaves out many of the victims Turner and company slaughtered, mainly the children. How can a monster do that to innocents? Was he right to kill everyone in his path? How many slave children were killed or destroyed emotionally? These are questions that you will ask yourself during and after the movie. Parker does paint Turner in a bit too well meaning, but the evidence is quite strong to support what he did. Would white people do the same thing if they were trapped and had no sense of hope? Parker doesn’t answer these questions but puts them on the table.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a hard hitting tribute to a man that many people are still divided what to think about. You will either agree about what he did or totally think of him as monster. As a film though, it is a powerful experience that makes you curious to what Parker will do next. He is a young and hungry film maker who definitely has what it takes to have a career behind or in front of the camera.