When Nate Parker‘s directorial debut “The Birth of a Nation” was announced as a Sundance selection, the knee-jerk reaction was to be expected. Many groaned that we didn’t need another “slavery film.” The concern was understandable, especially in a year that included “Underground” and “Roots” on TV. But as its Sundance reception showed, this passionate film captured an aspect of slavery that audiences needed to see.
The film tells the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a man with a divine destiny. Born into slavery, he was told that he would become a leader. So special is he that even his slave masters become invested in his education, teaching him to read the Bible. By adulthood, he becomes a revered preacher, a source of pride for both his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) and his fellow slaves. Trusting in the word of God – as interpreted by white men – he allows himself to be used to subdue the other slaves. But as he becomes increasingly aware of the harsh cruelties inflicted on his fellow man – including his newly married wife – he begins to question the subservient message he teaches. And like a light bulb, he realizes his calling from birth. Conspiring with other like-minded slaves, he then orchestrates one of the most significant rebellions in American history.
Alternately flat and overwrought, with flashes of brilliance in between, Parker conveys Turner’s story like a spiritual elegy for the past. As befitting the character, the screenplay often uses scripture as script, examining the power of the Biblical word for master and slave alike. The result is a film that frequently reaches for poetic symbolism with evocative individual shots and a rousing score that dictates how you should feel. But otherwise, although the plot is engrossing, it often feels underwhelmingly familiar.
Much credit for the film’s intrigue is due to the talented ensemble. As Turner’s relatively “good” masters, Armie Hammer and Penelope Ann Miller bring a complexity to their roles that perfectly supports the narrative’s oxymoron of slavery supported by Christianity. But it’s the black cast members who really stand out, proving that we need to see more of them on the big screen. Indeed, Parker delivers a tour de force performance as Turner, particularly in his passionate sermons and battle cries, which are undeniably riveting to watch. Among the supporting cast, Aja Naomi King deserves breakout attention, as her luminous face instills a deep sense of resilient humanity to the film.
But of course, the film’s main attraction is something far less humane. As we witness the rise of Turner as a leader, the audience eagerly anticipates his culminating act of rebellion. And it’s here where the film finds its most passionate and resonant voice. After countless films focused on black bodies being beaten, whipped and stripped bare, “The Birth of a Nation” turns the tables with palpable relish. Indeed, as strange as it may sound, there’s a kind of therapeutic quality to the unflinching violence. Despite the earlier shortcomings, Parker absolutely nails the finale with conviction of purpose and visceral intensity.
It’s therefore a shame that Parker and the film have become so mired in controversy. In an industry lacking in diverse voices, “The Birth of a Nation” showcases a promising black filmmaker with talent, passion and vision. If Academy members agree, then perhaps the film can still garner nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score. But regardless of its awards prospects, the vital historical drama deserves to be seen.
“The Birth of a Nation” opens in theaters Oct. 7 and is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.