It’s hard to talk about The Birth of a Nation because of its subject matter; it takes a look at a very shameful period of American history. But facing the nastiness of history and culture is the only way to understand the past and the future, which is why it’s tough to sit through the movie.
The film follows the legendary slave revolt of 1831 led by Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a man born into bondage who rose up against his oppressors with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. The Birth of a Nation chronicles Turner’s life from birth to death, while peering into the lives of slaves in the South during the 19th Century.
Turner grows up to be a preacher as one of the very few slaves in his plantation who has the ability to read. He uses the Bible to enrich the lives of others with spirituality and the Word of God. When rumors spread that Nat Turner has a knack for preaching Christianity to slaves, his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), uses Nat’s gifts to go from plantation to plantation to keep slaves from turning against their white masters.
As a director, Parker keeps the attention and point-of-view of The Birth of a Nation through the eyes of Turner. In this way, we can see how he was brought up and the exact moment when he decides to rebel. The film is very conventional, which is fine for the subject matter. There’s no use making such a nightmarish part of history overly stylish and slick. While there are definitely moments that feel like it’s Nate Parker’s first film (visions of angels aside), The Birth of a Nation flourishes with an expertly paced and balanced tone of the horrors of slavery and the thrills of a rebellion against oppressors.
As an actor, Nate Parker does a fine job showing the complex facets of Nat Turner’s life as a slave, family man, and leader. In fact, his performance is very quiet and reflects the balance of tone of the film itself. It would be too easy to give a showy performance, considering Parker’s role as writer and director, but he lets the subject matter and story speak for itself.
The film is brutal to watch but it’s something that shouldn’t be sugarcoated or whitewashed. The filmmakers and actors really do give the movie a certain realism that’s haunting and tough. At times, it could almost feel relentless, but there are a few moments of levity (however bitter it might be) that invites an audience to engage with the story. The film builds to its climax with every injustice Nat Turner and his family had to face time and time again into an almost cathartic rebellion sequence. Parker doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to on-screen violence and it’s a better movie for it.
The Birth of a Nation is a fine film that deserves your attention. It’s not often a movie like this comes around to multiplexes across the country, so please take advantage and watch it. And while America is going through a rough and confusing time with the 2016 presidential election and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, The Birth of a Nation ends with a glimmer of hope for the country as a whole. It’s a reminder that despite America’s ugliness and injustices, there is something to live and strive for in the future.