The saga of Nat Turner and his leadership of the historic 1831 slave revolt in Virginia is a powerful story that gets a fresh telling in the new film “The Birth of a Nation,” showcased at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and now released commercially. Nate Parker has both written the screenplay and directed, and also stars in a mighty performance as Turner.
The style of the film is very much in the vein of a Hollywood-type saga. However, the force of the depiction of the brutality and ugliness of slavery and the inspirational rise against it is so involving and rousing that it doesn’t matter much how Hollywood-like the film looks and plays. This is a deeply moving work that compels an audience to respond emotionally.
We follow the fate of Turner as a slave who has learned to read. He convinces his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) to buy a young woman, Cherry, poignantly played by Aja Naomi King, with whom Turner falls in love. His life takes an unusual turn, as he is farmed out as a preacher at various plantations. It is an odd circumstance. He is looked down upon as a slave, but at the same time is being used. The film chronicles the way in which as Turner quotes from the Bible in his prayer sessions, the words are building up in him a frustration at the dichotomy between prayer and reality.
The film provides a tour through the utter brutality of the way slaves are treated and the urge for freedom in the face of the power wielded over them as property. Parker as writer and director piles on the inhumanity as evidence, and shows how Turner is radicalized to the point of leading a revolt along with others whom he persuades to join in.
Once the upsurge begins, the slaves rain terror on white masters with slaughter that shocks the local powers that be. History has told us what Turner’s fate would be, and although the revolt failed, it has become an iconic, heroic statement by slaves who could not stand their fate any longer. Accordingly, Turner emerged as a major historical figure and Parker’s acting imbues him with that stature.
Parker has certainly done the subject justice in making this strikingly effective film. He has ironically used the same title that D.W. Griffith did for in his famous 1915 film that, while praised for its technique in the artistic advancement of film, stands as one of the most racist movies ever made in this country. In contrast, Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” dynamically portrays the racial issue as it needs to be shown. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Reviewed October 4, 2016.