The Birth Of A Nation is a film for our time. Written and directed by Nate Parker, it manages to transcend its 1831 setting in which an enslaved man led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, and speak to our present. While current controversy surrounding the film may cast a shadow on its director, the film itself is undeniably effective and must be seen.
The film starts with Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa) as a child. Like all children, he’s trying to make sense of the world around him. While born into slavery, his soul is that of a fighter. His owner allows him to play with his son, Samuel, and along the way Nat begins to learn how to read. Samuel’s mother, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), nourishes Nat’s developments by helping him read the Bible.
As an adult, Nat (Nate Parker) ministers to his fellow slaves on the Turner property. He preaches about peace, love, and obedience. When the economy gets tough for slave owners, the local preacher suggests that the adult Samuel (Armie Hammer) take Nat around to preach a message of obedience to calm other slaves.It’s during his travels that Nat starts to see the world in a different way. He witnesses the cruelty of slave masters on other plantations. These images of human beings tortured and oppressed by their owners conflicts with the message that Nat is forced to preach and has seen in his studies over the years. It tears at his soul, and has an impact on his outlook on life. In perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, Nat preaches with slave masters at his back, a message of obedience from the scripture while simultaneously giving a hope of vengeance for his fellow enslaved people.
After his wife is brutally raped, Nat sees scriptures in a different way. He slowly begins to believe that he is supposed to lead his people to rebellion, and that God has called him to do it. So he does.
This is not an easy film to watch, although not as unflinchingly brutal as 12 Years A Slave, Parker used a less is more approach. Instead of constantly showing violence, he shows the result of it. There were at least two audible gasps made by the crowd I saw the film with. Yet what’s more powerful and pervasive in a film that occasionally slips into melodrama, is its message. The indisputable atrocities suffered during slavery in the United States are on the screen plain as day, but the links to present atrocities comes through as well.
It’s certainly no coincidence that the The Birth Of A Nation hits theaters 100 years after D.W. Griffith’s monumental, albeit racist, film of the same name hit the screens. I never dreamed that Nat Turner’s story would make it to the big screen, but it has, and in many ways it’s a reflection of how far we’ve come as a nation. This film is a conversation starter for the right reasons and should certainly be seen, because if we don’t learn from our past mistakes we could easily repeat them!