We've been hearing about this film since it made waves at Sundance; borrowing the name of D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie to make a statement, director Nate Parker's THE BIRTH OF A NATION has kept our attention since it made waves at Sundance. And with the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement and the constant occurrences of police brutality and political drama, this film has perfect timing.
The film follows the story of Nat Turner (played by Parker), a literate slave who led a revolt against the white slave-owning families in Southampton County, VA in 1831. It's a violent tale, which is not glazed over in the film: once the rebellion occurs (and in a few scenes prior), there are moments that borrow their tone straight from horror films, unapologetic in their gore.
But for the first three quarters of the film, the story focuses on the buildup. Since he was a little boy, Nat has lived on the Turner Plantation, owned by a family (whose last name he has taken) that has always seemed to keep conditions a little more humane than the surrounding plantations -- they still treat them as lower beings, but there is a certain lack of assault and removal of human rights that puts them a notch above the others. Unfortunately, this progressive act has made them a laughing stock to the rest of the county. But when Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) decides to pay off some debts by renting Nat out as a traveling preacher to the slaves in neighboring plantations, something begins to shift: what at first makes Samuel resort to alcohol soon becomes a tactic he's willing to try to take back his family name.
But Nat, who was told since he was a little boy that he is a prophet, believes that God is telling him to take action. After his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is assaulted by white slave drivers, and Samuel allows a guest to have his way with another slave on the plantation, Nat calls together a group of men to rebel.
Let's back up for a moment. The idea of Nat as a prophet is not taken lightly in the direction of this film. In real life, Turner would speak of visions that he had from God, and would preach to his fellow slaves; while the film curtails the idea of Nat having visions, there is certainly enough divine imagery sprinkled throughout the film to nod to this detail of his history. The cold, harsh truth of slavery is paired with fleeting, fantastical dream sequences, revealing nearly angelic qualities in this young preacher. While the fact that some of these artistic decisions seem to regard Nat as a savior instead of the leader of a movement seems a little bit of a stretch for me, it certainly paints a picture of Nat's spiritual commitment, and his commitment to the cause.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION is now playing at Midtown Cinema! Come watch a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.