With all of the subtlety of a buckshot blast, first time director, Nate Parker’s unflinching and unapologetic retelling of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, The Birth of A Nation is a cinematic game-changer; a once in a generation story that is the perfect film for its time.
Several years ago, conventional thinking was that director Steve McQueen has pushed the boundaries regarding the depiction of slavery, onscreen, to its absolute limit in 12 Years A Slave. Seven years in the making, Parker obliterates that logic with this soul-stirring tale that examines a conflicted soul who is a man of God, yet can’t comprehend why he must witness so much human suffering as a part of His will. Unapologetic, Parker’s film leaves nothing to chance. He took a hiatus from acting, invested his own money as well as his ‘sweat and blood’ to bring his “passion project” to fruition.
While history books have largely reviled his memory and cast him as a crazed maniac, Parker paints a very different portrait of one of the history’s most misunderstood characters. From birth, providence was with him as an African elder ordained him a leader and a prophet. Born with “special marks” from ancient African traditions that imbued him with “wisdom, courage, and vision,” it is those qualities that would endear Nat Turner (Nate Parker) to both his supporters and ultimately, his detractors.
Growing up on Master Turner’s plantation, young Nat lives a carefree life, playing with young Samuel (Griffin Freeman). Despite it being against the law for slaves to read, young Turner not only does so in secret but instead of being chastised and punished, he is moved to the “Big House” under the instruction of the Master’s wife, Elizabeth (Penelope Anne Miller) and given “special status.” Under the impression that he will learn to read any book of his chooses, Nat is rebuked by her for reading “White People’s Books,” that his mind would not understand. She gives him, what she describes the perfect book, the Bible.
Very soon, young Nat becomes engrossed in his word, even being trotted out to read scriptures during service with the slaves in a make-shift church in the stables. When Master Turner dies, even his champion, Elizabeth, can’t prevent him from being sent to work as a field hand. As he grows into adulthood, Nat has now become a full-fledged preacher leading service and preaching patience and hope to those suffering constant oppression. His ability catches the eye of the local reverend (Mark Boone Junior), who sees in Nat an opportunity to use him in a dual capacity; keeping insurgent slaves at bay while making some money on the side from frightened slave owners of neighboring plantations.
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As the spiritual voice for his people on Master Samuel Turner’s (Armie Hammer) plantation, Turner’s life is in conflict as he spreads a spiritual message of hope where clearly there is none. For the slaves on Master Samuel’s plantation, life for Turner and his extended family is a less than genteel life of pain, suffering and humiliation at the hands of vicious slavers intent on keeping them in their place with fear and intimidation.
While the revolution is at the forefront of the story, Turner also finds love in the form of a rescued slave girl, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) who he convinces Master Samuel to buy as a wedding gift for his sister. Turner is instantly smitten by her and after a romantic moonlight proposal, where he pledges his love and devotion, the two are wed.
Despite his misgivings, Turner is trotted out to deliver sermons of submission to beaten-down slaves but one particularly brutal act he witnesses begins his transformation from a peaceful protestor to fiery orator. He preaches a “coded message” of aggression and hope, urging the captives that the day is coming to “sing a new song.” For Turner, that day begins to shape after his wife is brutally assaulted by a group of slavers, led by a vicious slave patroller (Jackie Earle Haley). Beaten and disfigured, she urges Turner to stand down during an emotional display that showcases both Turner’s compassion and pending fury.
Make no mistake about it, Parker is the real deal. Over the course of his career, he has injected a quiet dignity into each character that he has portrayed. It is that trait that Turner feels very comfortable for Parker to portray; the perfect character for an actor that has endured his own challenges in Hollywood.
Unlike the entertainment value that director Quentin Tarantino prioritized in his more stylized, Django Unchained, Parker’s film is a visceral gut-punch that roots the story in not just the man but his righteous cause. His Turner is strength personified in a way that no Black character has ever been portrayed on film. Even under the vicious lash, Turner refuses to live on his knees or show any weakness to his oppressors. This powerful trait earns him the undying loyalty of his followers and the white-hot hate of his oppressors.
Under the leadership of Parker, The Birth of a Nation is unprecedented, and simply the most dynamic debut film by a black director since John Singleton’s Boyz ‘N the Hood, 25 years ago. The history of African-Americans in films has largely been divided into three distinct periods featuring dominant personalities such as Oscar Micheaux, Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee. Along with emerging voices such as Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler, Parker’s vision serves as a clarion call to his peers as he joins the ranks as a vital and much-needed voice for the next generation of Black cinematic rebels.