Birth of a Nation, the much-anticipated dramatization of Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 slave rebellion, has great timing and relevance in its arrival, especially given the spate of the blue-on-black violence that has swept headlines and caused angry protests all over the country. The film is both a look forward and back, with the promise of a unified nation, where all are treated equal regardless of color. It serves as a grim, yet provocative probe into the relationships between humans, where one owns the other in the manner of livestock, and holds the power to do with as they please — including slaughter — with righteous impunity.
The film, which in its branding boldly reclaims the title from D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent classic extolling the heroics of Confederates and Klansmen, also became the righteous answer to the “Oscars so white” outcry when it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. It went on to score the biggest purse ($17.5 million) for any picture snapped up in the snowy hills of Park City. Cause and effect? Much like the young Nat (Tony Espinosa) experiencing prophetic dreams of his ancestors, the film from that moment on, whether it desired to or not, had become anointed and earmarked for some greater purpose.
Nat is born and grows up on a Virginia plantation filling the role of a playmate to the owner’s young son, Samuel Turner (Griffin Freeman), who in a decade or so will become Nat’s master. Because of such proximity, Nat (Nate Parker, who also directs the breakout project) learns to read, and due to his master’s over-indulgence in drink and poor fiscal standing, is passed from plantation to plantation to read the scripture to fellow slaves in an effort to help calm and motivate them in their work. It’s a plan that initially works for all involved, though Nat, head hung, becomes painfully aware that he’s selling his brother out, if even for the ephemeral moments of solace.
The tour of duty brings dark realizations of brutality and sadistic inhumanity that are disturbingly wince-worthy. A seed takes hold in Nat, and he’s able to convince Samuel (Armie Hammer) to purchase an abused and distraught female slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King of How to Get Away with Murder). Nat and Cherry marry and forge a modicum of happiness that becomes short lived after Cherry is cornered by a malevolent slave wrangler (a lethal, snake-eyed Jackie Earle Haley).
The trigger for the insurrection however, ultimately comes when Samuel decides to pound submission out of Nat’s hide. It was their friendship as boys that enabled Nat the rare opportunity to read, write, and think freely, something few other slaves were thought capable of or afforded the prospect, and in a poetically ironic twist, it falls back on itself and lethally so. It’s also at this juncture too that Parker, who is sure-footed enough behind the lens, opts for some heavy-handed symbolism and maudlin melodrama that doesn’t feel as organic or earned as what preceded it, or what history and the upcoming act requires.
One observation as the raids on the slave owners unfold is that violence is meted out with surprising efficiency. There’s vengeance to be sure, but not much cruelty, which can’t be said for most owners who relish their acts with peevish, sick glee. The difference between the two methods becomes the degree of respect for human life. All told, Nat and his liberated took 60 lives — 200 slaves were subsequently executed in response.
In conclusion, the film elevates Nat to a Christ-like post and taps the act as the catalyst to end slavery. It captivated minds across the nation through slow-moving headlines and occurred almost 30 years before John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and 35 years before the Civil War. It’s an important moment in American history to note, understand its significance, and embrace. Historians are certain to come after the film, just as they did with William Styron’s controversial 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, but let’s just remind ourselves these are depictions of our past delivered in art, meant to sway and move. To that regard, the film doesn’t carry the effect or reverberation that Steve McQueen’s far more nuanced 12 Years a Slave did for the ugly face of slavery, but it’s no less important in the dialogue on race and a shameful chapter in our past that deserves revisiting often, especially now.