Spanning almost a decade in the making, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation hit screens in 2016 and tells the story of Nat Turner, a literate black slave who causes an uprising in the antebellum American South. Nate Parker is well at work here: directing, writing and starring in his audacious passion project.
The Birth of a Nation shows Nat Turner’s life as a child to a full-grown man — witnessing the brutality and oppression during America’s most hateful period. From a young age he became infatuated with the bible and developed literacy skills under tutelage from the matriarch of the Turner family, Elizabeth (played by Penelope Ann Miller). He eventually became a preacher.
The film showcases the duality of the bible and its depiction of God: loving and wrathful. This unfolds right in front of us throughout the movie’s duration, pitting Nat Turner against the opulent elites of Southhampton County, mostly over the justification of slavery.
Used by his owners, Nat Turner travels around Southhampton County to help diffuse any signs of a revolt against white slavers. Under the guise of easing tensions, he subtly encourages a resistance against his oppressors. The movement is slow-burning, but pays off wonderfully in the third act.
A strong support cast joins the period drama, with standouts coming from Armie Hammer’s Samuel Turner, Nat’s moderately sympathetic owner who struggles with the morality of his compatriot’s actions, as well as his own; Jackie Earle Haley’s Raymond Cobb, whose downright hatred and violent tendencies make him a deplorable menace onscreen; and Mark Boone Junior’s Reverend Zalthall, who — in one of the film’s most memorable and uniquely tense moments, exchanges bible passages with Nat Turner as they exhibit their interpretations of slavery. The cast as a whole are a collective of seasoned thespians who perform their jobs with authenticity, but it’s Nate Parker who — in the words of Kevin Durant — is “the real MVP”. Parker’s embodiment of faith, frustration and spiritual realisation are energetically showcased.
The violence is concise and utilised in moments of necessity, without glorifying it all too much. The Birth of a Nation is at times, disturbing — considering the harsh reality of life as a 19th Century African American, and experiencing the horrors firsthand makes for an unflinching, unnerving saga that reaches boiling point. With an $8 million dollar budget, the film focuses strongly on its themes and greater implications rather than shoehorning in a cheesy Hollywood revenge narrative. This works more to its strengths and makes the minimised portions of combat — including a sufficiently exuberant climax — all the more rewarding and refreshing.
Like 12 Years a Slave (2013), The Birth of a Nation is a different beast to the 2012 film, Django Unchained. It examines a more grounded feel into the race relations pre-Civil War, while pushing a brand of spiritual and faith-based motives for its protagonist. Nat Turner mentions his “visions from God” and how he’s received them at pivotal moments in his life. Perceiving them as divinity, they shape the tone of what’s to come.
Conjectural rape allegations against Nate Parker have caused many road bumps for any genuine box office success, but that shouldn’t turn you off seeing this unflinching portrayal of a forgotten hero who had the guts to stand up and battle the systemic and racist oppression occurring at a barbaric time in the United States of America.
Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the worldwide distribution rights for the film for $17.5 million, the biggest deal in the history of the Sundance Film Festival.