The Birth of a Nation – Film Review by Emily Elphinstone
Director: Nate Parker
Writers: Nate Parker (screenplay), Nate Parker (story by)
Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller
In the United States, there is an uneasy climate in race relations. With discussions on police brutality, #blacklivesmatter, and the ‘whitewashing’ of Hollywood; it seems an apt moment for Nate Parker to release his directorial debut, which shares its name with D.W.Griffith’s famously racist and pro-klu klux klan 1915 silent film: The Birth of a Nation. Approaching the lead up to the American Civil War from a very different angle, The Birth of a Nation is a biography of literate field-slave and preacher Nat Turner (getting his surname from his ‘owners’), who led an uprising in Virginia in 1831.
Raised on a comparatively hospitable plantation in Southampton County, young Nat (Tony Espinosa) is allowed to play with the land-owner’s son Samuel, and his ability to read is encouraged by Mrs Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). However, Nat’s father is forced to flee after narrowly escaping death at the hands of a white gang; and Nat’s education is swiftly halted after the death of Mr Turner: Even at the best of times Nat is only allowed to read the Bible, as he wouldn’t understand ‘white folks books.’ As an adult, Nat (Nate Parker) preaches affirmative sermons to his fellow slaves and accompanies former friend turned master Samuel (Armie Hammer) on journeys. He even offers advice on the purchase of slave girl Cherry (Aja Naomi King), thus rescuing her from the lecherous other farmers attempting to buy her.
But when crops fail, and money becomes increasingly tight; the self-serving Reverend Zalthall (Mark Boone Jr) convinces Samuel to take Nate around neighbouring plantations to preach words of peace and subservience to their slaves in order to quell uprising. This opens both men to previously unseen levels of brutality. But while Samuel increasingly turns to alcohol and the company of the men he previously criticized; Nat begins to review the bible he so loves, finding words of retribution rather than peace.
Unlike films like Twelve Years a Slave, and Django Unchained, the most powerful moments involve Nat’s use of words, rather than the graphic violence visited on the slaves. The most potent scene, in fact, involves a war of words between Nat and the Reverend; in which both men use the Bible to prove their utterly opposing views.
Though other characters are sadly marginalized, Parker brings a wonderfully sensitive and complex performance to Nat; and the central relationships are more complicated than a simple battle of good and evil. The Birth of a Nation is an incredibly difficult watch, but is also a tragically beautiful film. This comes not only in classically stunning views of cotton fields, willows, and plantation mansions of Virginia; but also in the sad beauty of a butterfly resting on the body of a small boy. Though some dramatic moments are emphasised too heavy handedly, Elliot Davis’ cinematography and Henry Jackman’s score create an otherwise powerful and evocative frame to the story; and in his role as director and writer, Parker takes the time for moments of humanity and beauty, in what could otherwise have been an overly linear trajectory. The film may cause controversy amongst some, in its depiction of what was only one in a number of uprisings before the Civil War; and the unapologetic depiction of religion’s role in the justification of atrocities. But it nevertheless sheds light on an all too recent history, whose echoes and repercussions can still be seen today.