FILM REVIEW – THE BIRTH OF A NATION. With Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union. Written by Nate Parker. Directed by Nate Parker. Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity. 120 minutes.
Movies about American slavery tend to be similar to the movies made about South African apartheid. Even the films most sympathetic to the plight of the black victims of these oppressive systems tended to be told through the eyes of its white characters. Even the exemplary “Twelve Years A Slave” stumbled in requiring a white man to save the day. Thus THE BIRTH OF A NATION, about the Nat Turner Rebellion, offers a much-needed corrective.
Turner (played by the film’s writer/director Nate Parker) is born into slavery in the American South. Though it is forbidden, he learns to read and finds religion when reading the Bible. He is acquired by plantation owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who finds his ability to preach makes him doubly valuable. First, Nat can placate his fellow slaves with words about their eternal reward. Second, and just as important, Samuel can get much needed income by hiring out Nat to other planation owners.
Along the way, Nat sees the horrors and brutality of slavery and pays a price when he starts to take his own religious calling too seriously. Eventually, this leads him to organize an armed rebellion that will come to a bad end, but is heroic in the sense that they die as free men fighting for their lives rather than as slaves. From a modern perspective, what makes this significant is that Nat Turner is the center of our attention and the white characters–whether good or bad–are secondary.
This is a violent movie, particularly in its depiction of the punishment and killing of slaves. By contrast, it downplays to some extent the violence of the rebellion. The movie makes it seem that he was meting out justice to those who deserved it (particularly Jackie Earle Haley as a vicious hunter of runaway slaves), while glossing over that Nat Turner and his followers were not so particular in who they killed.
The film has been criticized for being conventional in many ways, and it is, but the notion of telling the story from Nat’s point of view and not pandering to try to make it more appealing to non-black audiences is commendable. One doesn’t have to be black to appreciate this story any more than one has to be Jewish to watch “Schindler’s List” or Scot to watch “Braveheart.” The yearning for freedom is universal. The specifics are what makes this stand out.
However what one assumes was a deliberate choice of title is unfortunate. “The Birth of a Nation” is the name of D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1914 film–the first feature-length American movie–set during and after the Civil War. (The Turner Rebellion took place decades earlier.) Griffith’s film is a compelling masterpiece, and it is also the problem child of American cinema as it reflects then-widely-held beliefs about Reconstruction in the South, including making heroes of the Ku Klux Klan. Such is the taint the film has borne that several years ago the Directors Guild of American removed Griffith’s name from their highest award. Both choices are unfortunate. We need to understand history and correct mistaken views of the past. In that sense this new “Nation” does that in telling a chapter of history that Americans ought to know. By taking Griffith’s title–which doesn’t even fit the events depicted in that Turner’s rebellion failed–filmmaker Parker needlessly muddies the waters.
This new “Birth” is less of a landmark than Parker might have intended, but in its point of view and the story it tells, it is worthy addition to the list of movies spotlighting American history.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.