The Birth of a Nation is not for the faint of heart and it is not comfortable. I did not go expecting a fun, action movie but I did expect to learn and be moved emotionally. Good art informs, is impactful, is thought provoking, and evokes emotion. This movie does all of those things.
The film is a presentation of a piece of American history; a slave uprising led by Nat Turner (Nate Parker) in 1831. It begins in 1809 with Nat’s childhood, beginning with a scene where he is brought before an African wise man who decrees that he will be a leader. Then it moves forward to a seemingly innocent scene of children playing together where Samuel, the son of the master, is chasing Nat and the others. Nat hides in the trees and Samuel goes into the house, leaving Nat outside with a book. Nat takes the book and thus begins his path.
The mistress of the plantation, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) picks Nat to be taught how to read as he displays intelligence and skill. After her husband passes away, he is returned to the fields but he continues to read from his bible. He becomes an adult and he leads his fellow slaves in sermons, trying to bring them spiritual guidance and hope.
As the story unfolds, Nat is brought by his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), to other farms to preach to the other slaves, to teach them using the Bible to obey their masters. Nat begins to realize that his fellow slaves are treated to starvation, torture and degradation. Even Samuel is not immune, using his slaves to further his own ends and leaving Nat with no doubt whose hand has the power. After Nat is shown the results of disobeying, Samuel inquires, “Have you learned your lesson?” Nat responds, “Oh, yes, sir. I have learned my lesson well.” It is no surprise that Nat leads his people to rise up. The only surprise is that he does not do it sooner.
I don’t think it gives anything away for the viewer to know that this is not a tale that ends well. Any history book can tell you Nat Turner’s fate. What this movie does well is show you the events leading up to the rising from the point of view of Nat, painting the brutality of slavery and the cruelty inflicted by owners onto their slaves.
Make no mistake; this movie depicts the harshness of slavery. In some cases, they were treated worse than animals. In other cases, the masters were gentle and provided luxuries to their slaves but in all matters, they had control over people’s lives, the power of life and death. And if a slave forgot, their masters would remind them who held the true power. The scenes are necessary but there is no way to even imagine such a world without showing us what it was like during that time period. Each scene is done with restraint but also without sugar coating the world of Nat Turner, showing us with honesty each element. Every image is done for a purpose. Without those images; there is no way for a modern society to understand the atrocities inflicted on a race simply for the color of their skin and the greed of the white landowners.
It is a dark and brutal vision of America’s past, a piece of history that most would like to forget but that most should remember so that it never happens again. If there is a message that the movie attempts to convey, a legacy that we should retain from our past, is that we speak out, don’t be silent but shout against tyranny and injustice to prevent it ever coming to pass once more. It is particularly impactful given the climate in our country today. Without ever directly stating the words, it tells us very clearly that black lives matter, that every life matters and that if you give a person oppression and hate, a people racism and hopelessness, they will find a way to rise up. And even now, two hundred years later, we still see the threads of this kind of evil being perpetrated over and over in the media, which makes it just that more important that we heed the legacy of Nat Turner.
While the events are not completely accurate, the movie has retained the essence of the truth, that even though these men were not successful, their vision lives on. Nat Turner’s rising led to stricter laws on slaves which in turn was one of the contributing factors to the Civil War. Without that rebellion, would the Civil War have happened? Would slavery have ended? I think not and to me, it seems as though the writer felt the same, as the final scene is the black men fighting in the Civil War.
Nate Parker’s acting is superb as is the acting of everyone in this movie. There were moments when I truly felt like I was there, watching the action unfold around me. The filmmaking was very immersive and I didn’t even feel the passage of time as I watched. There were little inaccuracies but the story was so strong that I didn’t really find myself dwelling on those small nuances. As one of my fellow reviewers noted, this movie should be nominated for an Oscar and I concur. It is the kind of film that comes along rarely and like Roots before it or Selma, this movie will impact viewers and carries a powerful message. The actors for this film deserve all the awards for driving this story forward with such evocative performances that I was crying at the end of the movie.
If you are looking for a story that is fun and lighthearted, this is not for you. But if you are looking for education, if you are a student of history and want to see a movie that has an emotional punch, go see The Birth of a Nation. It was intense, riveting, and moved me profoundly. The acting is exquisite, the film is breathtakingly well done and while it is not a movie everyone will want to see, it is one everyone should see, if only so we can learn from our past and transform our future.
Rating: 5 stars
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.
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, and Jackie Earle Haley
Director: Nate Parker
Written by: Nate Parker, Jean McGianni Celestin