Movie Review: ‘THE BIRTH OF A NATION’ – an unflinching tribute to Nat Turner

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Preston Barta // Editor

THE BIRTH OF A NATION | 120 min | R
Director: Nate Parker
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann MillerAja Naomi KingAunjanue EllisColman DomingoDwight HenryMark Boone JuniorJackie Earle HaleyEsther ScottRoger Guenveur SmithTony Espinosa and Gabrielle Union

The promotion of THE BIRTH OF A NATION has been crawling through the shadows in recent months, due to the controversy surrounding a resurfaced 1999 news story involving its filmmaker and leading star. As a film journalist, however, I’ll leave the altercation to social media comment threads and stick with what Nate Parker puts on screen.

Considering the issues and current backdrop of race dialogue in our country, BIRTH OF A NATION could not have been conceived at a more appropriate time. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January when Oscar nominations were hot off the skillet and #OscarsSoWhite was a worldwide trending topic — not to mention the many acts of violence over racial injustice that occurred in the months following. In this context, the story of one man’s fight for freedom and equality is, no doubt, essential.

Based on the incredible story of the real life freedom fighter, the film is a biopic of Nat Turner (Parker), a Virginian-born slave and Baptist preacher who led the bloodiest slave rebellion in U.S. history. The 1831 revolt left nearly 65 slave owners and family members slaughtered, and the resulting retaliation led to the death of at least 100, possibly 200 African Americans.

As the film begins, Parker introduces us to Nat’s childhood, when the mother (Penelope Ann Miller) of his later-established owner (Armie Hammer) teaches him how to read. It’s the start of something valuable for Nat, but Parker tempers the mood by showing the foreboding skepticism of Nat’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and others, who wonder whether this will serve a greater purpose or result in their undoing.

From here, Parker spins a haunting story of the years leading up to Turner’s infamous insurrection. In those years, we see some slaves treated with respect and others with anything but. Audiences go from meeting Hammer’s Samuel Turner as a drunken plantation owner with some heart to watching him become a soulless man corrupted by greed – a change brought about by Nat’s ability to preach the word of God to the slaves, which in turn, gives them hope to do their work with more determination.

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Nat Turner (Parker) leads the bloodiest slave rebellion in U.S. history. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Parker shows audiences the horrifying images that come from the dark historical period, but he knows when to shock and when the mere implication carries greater weight. One powerful scene in particular shows a slave woman (Gabrielle Union) walking out of Samuel’s plantation home, returning to the arms of her husband after accompanying a houseguest who required a “negro woman.” It’s one of many disturbing sequences where Parker uses character reactions to strike the right emotional chord instead of bashing the audience over the head with what could have been a truly torturous experience.

What’s perhaps the most surprising thing about BIRTH OF A NATION is how mature it is. Despite being Parker’s directorial debut, it has all the signs of coming from an experienced filmmaker. His characters are well drawn, the set pieces are immersive and his use of the camera – not afraid to let a shot linger and capture a moment – is astonishing.

While the film calls attention to Parker’s skills behind the camera, it also solidifies his talent in front of it. He’s proven himself capable in movies such as BEYOND THE LIGHTS and THE GREAT DEBATERS, but BIRTH OF A NATION is certainly his best performance to date. Parker carries the film quite remarkably while pulling triple duty (also penning the screenplay) and is quick to claw at your heartstrings and leave you stunned. (Look for the key scene when he comforts his wife – played by the equally as great Aja Naomi King – after slave patrollers savagely beat her.)

BIRTH OF A NATION may not have leave the same emotional scars as Steve McQueen’s masterful 12 YEARS A SLAVE, but Parker’s expertise is wise beyond his years, as he crafts a triumph that should be celebrated for its cinematic impact regardless of what one thinks of the filmmaker’s personal character.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION opens on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.