“When Fox Searchlight purchased Birth of a Nation earlier this year and announced a nationwide release, many relished at its Oscar chances, particularly for its young, black director, Nate Parker. And yet – while many nourished these prospects (which look increasingly less likely given the recent controversy surrounding Parker), there are those that question the purpose of another slavery story – particularly in light of the sad fact that African-Americans make up less than ten percent of all characters in the average feature film, many of which are stereotypical in and of themselves.
Often these are stories that need to be told – but it’s also worth pointing out that not every serious, Oscar-worthy drama with a primarily African-American cast has to revolve around the slave trade. Birth of a Nation, however, manages to justify itself – particularly alongside today’s intense political climate. It isn’t as epic, or as good overall, as 12 Years a Slave, but it still manages a more intimate and less political approach to its protagonist’s life. And despite the risk of the film drowning in Parker’s own controversies, this simple yet powerful storyline about Nat Turner’s rise to rebellion remains strikingly resonant.
But until that fateful moment late in the film, Nate Parker builds the local legacy Nat Turner (played by himself). He introduces Nat, sometimes heavy-handedly, as a child born to lead, seen by others as special, and capable of feats beyond most slaves. When Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) the wife of his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) notices he’s the only slave who can read, she takes Nat into her custody to mold him into an even more useful public servant as a preacher, something Nat himself welcomes and grows to like. Still, while Nat gains respect in the film’s early sections, the occasional brunt of a whip ensures he’s never truly able to forget his lesser position in society.
Soon, the financially strained Samuel Turner accepts an offer from Reverend Zalthal (Mark Boone Jr.), a boozy and lazy priest, for Nat to preach to unruly slaves for the purposes of instilling false hope. That’s when Nat’s world changes forever. Not naïve to the violence around him but increasingly self-aware of the contradictions his society forges within the Bible’s law and his country’s law, Nat’s sense of duty to his white masters declines when a sense of duty to his African brethren emerges.
The film is an accessible, character-driven rebellion story that’s easy to grasp once it starts – a wise move considering the gratuitous violence laced throughout the second half. Nate Parker’s direction is confident yet restrained enough to let the characters speak for themselves. Though the first hour sometimes slugs as it fleshes out the oncoming conflict, the payoff is an uncompromising, powerful final act that sees Nat orchestrating his notorious rebellion. It’s a credit to Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin’s writing that Nat becomes a believable rebel when the blood begins to spill, with his motivations carefully crafted, thoroughly explored, and powerfully depicted.
Birth of a Nation occasionally shows off impressive imagery, even if the rough edges that occasionally pop up in the film’s editing undermine their impact – particularly during earlier sections as the film finds its footing. Nat Turner’s rise to rebellion was a local affair that became a nationwide legacy only after his death, and yet there remains a lingering feeling that the conflict lacks a degree of scope. Then again, it never feels too self-contained given the confidence of the storytelling and the obvious importance of Turner’s legacy. The end result is a simple yet compelling, emotional drama that establishes the significance of this local rebellion, and is sure to prompt sober reflection on America’s history as well as contemporary police brutality.