Birth of a Nation
Dir: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis, Coleman Domingo, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Mark Boone Junior, and Jackie Earle Haley
3.50 out of 5.00
Birth of a Nation
MONTE YAZZIE ~ THE FOOTHILLS FOCUS ~10/12/16
It’s been 150 years since the abolishment of slavery. Take a quick look at the headlines populating social media feeds or the top story on the nightly news, and it doesn’t take much to realize that society still has a long way to go. Racism, discrimination, intolerance: these are words that have taken political precedent just a month out of an election for our nation. Progress, peace, understanding: these are words that carry significant weight when looking towards the future but also when analyzing the past.
It’s been 185 years since Nat Turner, an enslaved African American in Virginia, led a rebellion of slaves that took the lives of more than 50 white Americans. Director and writer Nate Parker has taken this story and turned it into a powerful, if somewhat flawed, film that evokes a complicated and sometimes controversial discussion.
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is a slave. Growing up in the south, Nat was taught how to read by his slave owners. Nat became a preacher, leading services for the other slaves on the property owned by a man named Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Nat is commanded to travel with Samuel to other properties in the south to preach, leading him to see the horrific pain and suffering other slaves were enduring. Terrible events transpire, which leads Nat to organize an uprising.
The film builds the character of Nat Turner with an identity strongly associated with religion. He is a preacher who stands in front of other slaves sharing a message of peace, tolerance, and the eventual freedom they will receive by trusting in God. It’s a message that Nat believes until terrible events start to occur: the rape of his wife Cherry by a group of slave patrollers and the torture of slaves by owners of neighboring plantations. It should be noted that Parker has said that the film is not historically accurate, specifically some of the events that are utilized to push Nat Turner to rebellion. Films based on history do this all the time; unfortunately the liberties taken here hurt the narrative. Instead of allowing Nat Turner to rebel simply because he knew slavery was wrong, he is pushed to action at the expense of women who are displayed as subservient and complaisant to men.
Still, Parker orchestrates some good moments, specifically with the scenic photography that paints the south shrouded in the shadows of ominous trees and with hazy cotton fields and dense forest. The preaching moments with Nat Turner are also well composed; watching this spiritual man struggle to provide words of hope in hopeless moments is heartbreaking. There are unfortunately a few moments when Parker goes a little too far with the imagery he is trying to connect, leaving some of the stronger narrative moments behind in place of scenes displaying symbolic spirituality.
There is a moral conundrum associated with this film. While some will discuss the necessity of watching a film with these specific themes in association with our current social climate, others will be dissuaded by the personal concerns associated with the troubling history of the director. I’m not here to tell you what to do. With that said, there are moments in this film that are extremely affecting, in similar to the feelings felt during the film “12 Years A Slave”, which is the far better film here. Watching the inhumane treatment of another human being is not something that I like to see. Though I cannot deny the powerful message that underlines this film, mainly that the effects and sentiments of slavery are still being felt clearly today. Time has the unfortunate ability of shadowing historical atrocities of the past; however, as a group of humans working together to be better, it should be our goal to make sure that we recognize the past and ensure these atrocities never happen again.