By Leslie C. Halpern
In this biographical drama, writer-director-producer-actor Nate Parker portrays Nat Turner, a literate slave who transformed from peace-loving preacher to brutal slave revolt leader. Filmed in Savannah, Georgia, (which substituted for 1831 Southampton County, Virginia), The Birth of a Nation follows events preceding the Turner-led slave rebellion that lasted 48 hours and resulted in the death of hundreds – about 60 white slave owners and more than 100 blacks.
Growing up as a slave with his parents and grandmother on the Turner plantation, Nat was treated with relative kindness by the family when they realized his intelligence and spirituality. Allowed to play with the family’s son, Samuel (Armie Hammer), get tutored in reading the bible, and briefly live inside the mansion with the family, Nat enjoyed privileges given to very few slaves at that time. After Mr. Turner’s death, however, things changed for the worse.
A Preacher to Other Slaves
The Turner family became strapped for money, which led Samuel (now a young man running the plantation) to sell Nat’s services as a preacher to other slave owners. Nat was forced to preach tolerance and servitude to other slaves living under horrendous conditions under cruel plantation owners. Eventually his preaching changed from being a passion to unite people in love to a passion to unite people in revolt.
After witnessing the deplorable conditions at other plantations, dealing with the aftermath of a brutal sexual assault on his wife, Cherry, (Aja Naomi King), and enduring a merciless whipping for baptizing a white man on Turner’s property (thus making Samuel a laughingstock among other slave owners), Nat experiences a drastic change of heart. This decision is fueled in part by his life-long visions and dreams of his African tribal ancestry, which marked him as the chosen one because of three vertical moles on his chest. These strange visions help inspire his secret plans to violently revolt against the slave owners – a rebellion doomed before it ever began.
Though the acting is excellent all around, the visions are just one of a few clunky directorial elements, which include recurrent Christ symbolism regarding the Nat Turner character. Was he a hero when he promoted peace? Was he a hero when he promoted violence? Was he ever a hero at all or merely an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances?
The movie comes with built-in controversy. Between the brutally violent content, spiritual overtones that promote vengeance, inevitable comparisons to the superior 12 Years a Slave, Parker’s 1999 rape accusation, and the racial injustice and ethnic stereotypes depicted in the film, everyone has something to talk about. As a historical account of one man’s fight to end slavery – by whatever means necessary – it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that shares a story not everyone has heard. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s an excellent launching point for discussion about ideology, morality, and spirituality.
The Birth of a Nation
- Based on a true story, slave preacher Nat Turner orchestrates a brutal uprising among slaves in Southampton, Virginia in 1831.
- Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union, Jackie Earle Haley, Aunjanue Ellis, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo
- Director: Nate Parker
- Genre: Biographical Drama
- Run Time: 120 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity)