During the opening scenes of The Birth of a Nation, we meet Nat Turner (Nate Parker) as a young boy. One evening he’s taken into the woods where he finds his elders performing an African ritual. It’s during this ceremony that he’s told he’s special, destined to be a leader. It is written, and Nat’s got the birthmark to prove it.
We follow Nat as he learns to read. His master’s wife, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), is benevolent in nature (as much a slaveowner can be) and she's fond of him. When she finds out that young Nat has been sounding out words on his own, she’s not threatened or angered. She's delighted. In fact, Elizabeth immediately removes Nat from the only family he’s got left since his father was forced to "leave" the plantation. None of that matters though because all she wants is to get to work. Elizabeth teaches Nat how to read using the Bible. From the start she's quick to point out that he'll only have access to the information that's been deemed appropriate for slaves. Elizabeth knows her place in society and she trusts that a bright boy like Nat knows his.
Elizabeth Turner's gesture does not go unappreciated. Nat's grateful even if he isn't free. He knows it could be far worse for him and for that he feels conflicted and appreciative. He works hard and ultimately learns more than Elizabeth intended anyway. Not only does Nat learn how to read, he figures out how to preach. And, when this new talent is recognized, he becomes a highly valued asset to his master, contemporary and childhood friend Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer).
Samuel Turner is encouraged by a local preacher to rent Nat out. It seems he might be useful in "calming" the other slaves. At first Samuel's not into it, but he eventually comes around. He needs the cash to keep his plantation afloat, so he'll do what he must. Nat starts out preaching to his fellow slaves about why they should obey and accept their owner’s wrath. He tells them that it is the word of the Lord. This is their destiny. He reminds them that only His word dictates what’s right and just--His word and His word only.
For a while even Nat buys into what he’s preaching. He knows the word of the Lord is right and good, but eventually he questions the interpretation of the Bible. Something so vicious, demeaning and one-sided simply cannot be sanctioned by a god who preaches love and peace, right? Well, Nat Turner doesn't think so, not anymore.
During a particularly brutal scene where a hunger-striking slave has his teeth knocked out so he can be force fed, Nat finds the strength to use his talent to help on a grander scale. He doesn’t want to console his fellow slaves anymore. He’s done giving them something to cling to during their darkest hours. What he wants now is to spark the audacity within them to dream of freedom. The Birth of a Nation is the story of how Nat Turner achieved this feat. It’s a compelling story, but one that is only ever seen from Nat Turner’s perspective. That narrow perspective feels frustrating and unjustly limiting considering the impact Turner's rebellion had on history.
At first I was all over this movie. I couldn’t wait to get my eyeballs on it but then news of Nate Parker’s 1999 rape charges resurfaced, and I changed my tune. I instantly became apprehensive. Parker was later cleared of all charges, but his initial reaction to questions about this period of his life left a lot to be desired. I wondered if I should still see the movie and then I realized I still watch Woody Allen and Roman Polanski movies, so.
Nate Parker is compelling as Nat Turner. Parker throws every fiber of himself into this performance, and that sort of effort is always appreciated. With that said, there are moments when it’s all too much. Nat's emotions sometimes feel as if they’re being broadcast instead of expressed. A little subtlety would have gone a long way in providing some depth to this version of the historical Nat Turner.
Aja Naomi King is delicately powerful as Cherrie, Nat’s wife. She brings the depth to this story. Coleman Domingo as Hark broke my heart about halfway through the movie but then I didn't get more than two sentences out of him for the rest of the film. Unfortunately, Cherrie and Hark blend into the background of the movie the moment their characters are no longer necessary to propel the story forward. This kept the progression of events focused, but it was hard on character development.
Nate Parker (director) presents Nat Turner as something of a loose cannon, but never gives us much insight into his motives on a granular level. The real Nat Turner led a bloody uproar. Many innocent lives were lost. Some of those lost were children, infants even. I understand that Innocent blood is almost always spilled during times of civil upheaval, but Nat Turner’s story isn’t interesting because he organized enough people to lead a revolution. It’s interesting because of the contradictions, hypocrisy and sheer violent force he needed to employ so as to obtain actual freedom—the kind that converts a piece of property into a human being that counts, is recorded as existing, can own land, vote, use any bathroom he pleases, look anyone he wants directly in the eyes. And, Turner didn't just rise up to save himself, he did it for everyone around him.
With The Birth of a Nation, I got a couple of excruciatingly brutal scenes conveying the spark that lead to an uprising, but that wasn’t all I wanted. I also needed to know more about Nat Turner’s internal struggles. I needed to know how someone like him could reconcile the awful things done to him in the name of God, while simultaneously preaching His word. That's not all, I wanted to know how he rationalized the violence and death he himself unleashed on so many. I have lots of questions, but since they won't be answered by this movie, I'm not left with much.
Nat Turner's story is important for many reasons. It's harrowing and compelling all on its own, so the choice to use two fabricated rape scenes as catalysts for Turner's revolution came across as problematic to me. That's not to say that The Birth of a Nation isn't an entertaining film. It is, but the focus rests obsessively on Turner's perception of what's going on around him, so much so that you'll likely still feel like somethings missing, even after the epilogue fades from the screen.