- on Friday, 07 October 2016 08:30
- by Frank Wilkins
Though it borrows the title of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation isn’t a remake of that earlier film. In fact, other than the common subject of slavery in mid-nineteenth century America, the two are virtual polar opposites, with the original widely considered a racist propaganda piece with a sympathetic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, while the most recent takes a critical look at one the darkest and most painful episodes of our past with the intention of finding some sort of illumination. It is an alternate take on the birth of this nation, if you will.
That’s not to say that The Birth of a Nation’s writer/director/producer/star Nate Parker doesn’t get down and dirty with his narrative, or that he somehow lets up on his depiction of the suffering, hardship, and misery of the times. He doesn’t. The Birth of a Nation is an extremely difficult film to watch and one you’ll not want to sit through a second time. Regardless, in spite of its many flaws, (the byproduct of a first-time filmmaker who is in a bit over his head), it should be required viewing for everyone. It’s that important.
While many celebrated films have explored our country’s history with slavery, from 12 Years a Slave to Django Unchained, to Amistad and others, most dabble in broad strokes whereas Parker’s film narrows its focus to a little-known event in American history – The Turner slave rebellion, which was led by slave Nat Turner in 1831 Virginia, and is often called one of the most influential acts of resistance against slavery in American history.
We meet young Nat (Tony Espinosa) and his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) as property of the Turner plantation where Nat is allowed to play with young Samuel Turner, the son of the plantation’s owner. It’s not long before Nat shows interest in the written word and is taught to read the Bible by Samuel’s mother, against the advice of many whites.
The story jumps forward many years where we meet adult Nat (Nate Parker) in the Virginia cotton fields along with his childhood friend, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who now runs the place following his father’s death. As the drought in the South worsens, forcing the plantation into tough times, Samuel agrees to pander his favorite slave’s preaching skills to other plantations with hopes of making a little money and quelling the restlessness of the county’s angered field hands. The plan mostly works as Nat preaches peace and obedience to his fellow enslaved. But once he begins traveling to neighboring farms, he is exposed to the working side of slave-dependent plantations where he sees the horrendous atrocities like starvation, sensory deprivation, and even outright torture. One scene depicting the force-feeding of a slave is particularly appalling.
One of the most promising aspects of The Birth of a Nation is the contrast of the aesthetic beauty against the film’s omnipresent violence and human degradation. Turner’s gorgeous sweeping shots of the Southern landscape (aided by Director of Photography Elliot Davis) with its moss-laden oaks and eternally setting sun are often followed by scenes of unwatchable horror. One segment involving the rape of Nat’s wife’s (Aja Naomi King) by a posse of slave hunters has been cut down from its initial Sundance showing. It’s difficult to imagine it being any more disturbing.
For all the things Turner gets right with The Birth of a Nation, he misses on an equal number, including his heavy-handed script weighed down by overly obvious poetic symbolism, glaringly on-the-nose soundtrack decisions, and an affinity for close-up selfies. A running dream sequence is well-intentioned and sometimes works as a much-appreciated break from the film’s tougher moments, but never quite feels as seamless as it might in the hands of a more seasoned director.
All the controversy aside – Parker was accused and later acquitted of the 1999 rape of a fellow college student who subsequently committed suicide – The Birth of a Nation is a solid piece of filmmaking that is as uncomfortable to watch as it is relevant to today’s social climate. Unfortunately it’s easy to turn our heads and even more pointless to ignore Parker’s message that speaks to the sins of our nation’s dark past. But if Parker can keep the dialogue flowing and make us all recognize and understand the precarious bindings of the present to our past, then The Birth of a Nation just might be as important as it thinks it is.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.
Runtime: 120 mins
Director: Nate Parker
Writer: Nate Parker
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller
Genre: Drama | History
Tagline: The Birth of a Nation.
Memorable Movie Quote: "You a chile of God, you got purpose."
Theatrical Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Official Site: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/thebirthofanation/
Release Date: October 7, 2016
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: Set against the antebellum South, THE BIRTH OF A NATION follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat's preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities - against himself and his fellow slaves - Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
No details available.