Friday, October 7, 2016


The year was 1831. The issue of slavery in the United States was 30 years away from erupting into the Civil War, but on an August night in Virginia, a young slave by the name of Nat Turner organized a rebellion in which white slave-owners and their families were murdered in their beds. It was an incident which sparked outrage and led to the slaughter of thousands of black people, slaved and free, in retaliation. It was an incident in history that is messy and ugly and not easy to let fly on film…and perhaps too large for a first-time director.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker), is born into slavery and taught how to read by his owners, which include Samuel (Armie Hammer) and his mother (Penelope Ann Miller). Turner learns to be a preacher, and when Samuel encounters financial troubles, is convinced by Reverend Walthall (Mark Boone Jr.) to take Turner around to the neighboring slave plantations to make some money and to quell any thoughts of rebellion by any slaves. Once on the road, Turner witnesses the harsh conditions and treatment the owners have for their slaves, and after his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is attacked, organizes a bloody rebellion.

Not much is really known about the factual Nat Turner, other than his actions during that August night and that he was a man of faith who claimed to have visions which inspired him. Nate Parker, who co-wrote, directed, and stars as Turner, capitalizes on this and makes THE BIRTH OF A NATION a religious piece inside of a historical epic. Turner being shopped around by his master in an effort to keep local slaves in line is a test of faith, and despite his own slave upbringing on a somewhat-humane plantation, serves as a nice backdrop in his journey from preacher to rebel leader.

These are excellent touches considering the inevitable bloodshed to come, but Parker is in the director’s chair for the first time…and it really shows. Shots are filmed very plainly with the rare eye-popper, and the film suffers from many awkward transitions from scene-to-scene…along with many scenes feeling like they were cut abruptly short. The third act, which includes the revolt, feels very rushed; the climactic battle between two sides of fighters rushing at each other has no buildup whatsoever, and we’re into the fight and out of it before we even realize the story is at its supposed climax; so much for drama. The script relies heavily on Bible passages to express what characters are thinking, and while that works for the most part, creates a disconnect between us and the characters and eventually the entire film. Characters are used as plot points, going so far as to diminish Turner’s wife Cherry, with her attack and rape acting as the final catalyst for Turner to begin his rebellion. Turner himself doesn’t have much of a character arc, and only seems to come to life near the end. The eventual killing of Samuel (one of many historical inaccuracies, for those who care), comes out of left-field and doesn’t make sense story-wise.

For as much as Nate Parker struggles behind the camera, he is absolutely mesmerizing in front of it. His performance is one for the history books, giving off more raw emotion in one look or facial twitch than most actors can pull off in two hours of film. Armie Hammer is the surprise of the film, finally breaking out of his wooden box acting. Aja Naomi King is beautiful on film and turns in a good performance where she is allowed to, and Jackie Earle Haley, as a ruthless and despicable slave-hunter, makes for a great screen villain once again.

There is a lot to appreciate in THE BIRTH OF A NATION, as there are some great ideas going on about faith and how it can motivate or even justify actions, and despite how grisly the murder scenes are, there is a nice balance between brutality and beauty which keeps it from becoming a b-movie horror-flick splatterfest. But the film is too blunt and heavy-handed with its technical execution and imagery, and really seems to be begging for the finesse of an experienced hand. The title of the film itself is a stretch, as the ending moments try really hard to prove itself worthy of the words, but like the rest of the movie, is handled clumsily. Nate Parker has done good work here, but his lack of experience is in stark contrast to his talent as an actor. THE BIRTH OF A NATION does enough good to avoid being a complete wash, but falls short of the greatness its title yearns for.


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