Nate Parker not only makes his directorial debut with this film but also wrote the screenplay and stars in the lead role. It’s an impressive undertaking, and for the most part, a successful one.
“The Birth of a Nation” is based on the true story of Nat Turner (Parker), a slave and preacher who led a revolt that culminated in the deaths of over 250 people in Virginia. As with many historic tales, a lot of creative liberty is taken with the events that led up to the revolt, but this does not make the story any less effective.
As a young boy, Nat was told he had a higher purpose, that god had a plan for him. Considering it was a tribal elder who told him this, we wonder if he was referring to the same God that Nat would eventually start preaching about? The plantation owner’s wife takes a liking to young Nat and has him raised as one of the house slaves. She personally teaches him to read and impresses the importance of the bible upon him. But after her husband dies, she moves to a different home, and Nat is returned to the manual laborers outside. As he grows into adulthood, Nat uses the bible to teach hope and inspiration to his fellow slaves. Eventually, as word of his ministry travels, other plantation owners begin paying for his services. They believe his words will help calm their slaves and quell any disobedience by “putting the fear of god into them.”
Ironically, it’s these very visits that begin to plant seeds of violence within Nat. As a youth, he had already witnessed the cruelty of the locals. But now he was seeing things so inhumane that the bible’s words on submissiveness and obedience felt like a betrayal to his people as they crossed his lips. In one wonderful scene, while facing a small group of abused slaves, he instead reads from a different part of the bible, one that heralds the upcoming heavenly justice against wicked men. The ignorant white men barely notice, but everyone else stands with their heads a little higher. The story continues with increasingly upsetting encounters until Nat finally reaches his breaking point and organizes a short-lived, but brutally violent, uprising against their captors.
The strongest aspect of “The Birth of a Nation” are the visuals. The breathtaking beauty of the south is starkly contrasted against the jarring cruelty humans inflict upon one another. The film is packed with beautifully framed shots and although some are a touch too on-the-nose (e.g. blood lightly dripping on cotton) as a whole it is effective and mesmerizing. It’s an impressive accomplishment for Nate Parker, made even more impressive given his performance. Any moment he’s on screen, any dialog that passes his lips enhances what is an otherwise lackluster script. The dialog and progression of events have a very familiar feel to it, almost as if it had been hobbled together from segments of other movies. It’s not a bad script, but it feels “simplistic” in comparison to the performances and visuals.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a timely film that will surely encourage discussions on race, religion, and justice.