Bracing, provocative ‘Birth of a Nation’ resonates with righteous unrest
The Birth of a Nation
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer & Penelope Ann Miller
Directed by Nate Parker
In theaters Oct. 7, 2016
In 1831, 31-year-old Nat Turner led a slave uprising in Virginia that resulted in the deaths of more than 50 white men, women and children, and the retaliation of white mobs and militias that killed some 200 blacks—including many who were not involved in the rebellion.
A “literate” black who could read and write, Turner grew up on Bible stories and later held worship services for his fellow slaves. He eventually came to believe that God had finally seen enough of the injustices of slavery, and was calling him to lead a slave army on a march of vengeful, wrong-righting insurrection.
When a solar eclipse darkened the sky over the cotton fields one day, Turner knew he’d seen his sign—he’d gotten his “go” signal. The timing, as they say, was right.
The timing was right for director and star Nate Parker, too, when he opened his movie about Nat Turner earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The Birth of a Nation was a smash, a stunner, a shocker. Landing smack in the middle of the #OscarSoWhite controversy—about the lack of diversity among the 2016 Academy Awards nominees—it was a bracing, provocative blast of black-powered, top-to-bottom talent, and a topic, that couldn’t be ignored.
And it wasn’t. Fox Searchlight forked over $17.5 million for the distribution rights, a Sundance record, to get the film into theaters by the end of the year.
The film also recently opened the 10th annual International Black Film Festival in Nashville, Tenn., just ahead of its wide theatrical release.
The Birth of a Nation is a powerful piece of filmmaking, and a mighty impressive work, especially as Parker’s debut as a director. It takes a little-known event from America’s shameful past and elevates it to rousing, epic proportions. Both in front of and behind the camera, Parker shows the humanity as well as the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South, and the evils of an entire economic system built upon the systematic exploitation of a population for profit, regardless of the “kindness” or cruelty of any individual master, landowner, merchant or anyone else who benefitted.
Armie Hammer plays Turner’s second-generation master, Samuel Turner, whose benevolence is eclipsed by his desire to keep his estate financially secure and reputable—at whatever the cost. Penelope Ann Miller is Samuel’s mother, who teaches young Nat to read, which has enormous repercussions. Jackie Earle Haley is a sadistic slave hunter. Gabrielle Union portrays Esther, a slave wife forced to spend an evening as “entertainment” for one of Samuel Turner’s drunken guests.
Yes, it’s sometimes hard to watch—to see Turner tied to a post and horsewhipped to a pulp, to watch a little white girl lead a little black girl around with a rope “leash” around her neck, to witness a slave get his teeth get bashed out with a hammer. And a couple of—pivotal—rape scenes are particularly discomforting, given how the movie has reactivated the spotlight on Parker and his screenwriting collaborator Jean Celeste and the charges that were brought against them in 1999 as college students that they raped a fellow student; Parker was acquitted, the charges were dropped on Celeste after he appealed, and the woman who accused them committed suicide.
Different audiences will see this movie through different prisms, quite obviously. Some people won’t want to see it at all, for various reasons. Given the inflamed, highly polarized state of affairs across the nation, the Black Lives Matter movement and protests about police treatment of blacks, racial profiling, our national anthem and criminal injustice, the film resonates with a righteous unrest that rings far beyond events that happened 175 years ago.
“They’re killin’ people everywhere for no reason all than bein’ black,” says Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King).
In so many ways, the timing for Parker’s film about Nat Turner feels so right, and so right now.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine