Nat Turner's slave rebellion is a unique moment in American history; an educated slave in Virginia casts off the horrors of his servitude to kill not only his master but dozens of others. He was a hero to those who knew slavery was a horrid abomination, and he exposed the fear in many white people's hearts, a fear that they may end up paying a heavy price for their crimes.
That doesn't necessarily sound like a major motion picture from Fox Searchlight, even in 2016. Yet it's been writer-director-star Nate Parker's dream project for years now, and it became one of the more well-reviewed movies on the festival circuit and maybe the most anticipated movie of the fall. Does it live up to the hype? Does the hype even matter? Those are loaded questions when dealing with a charged work of art like this.
Parker plays the aforementioned Nat Turner, a slave-slash-preacher belonging to Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who was taught to read the Bible by Samuel's mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). As the local farm falls on hard times, Samuel decides to bring Nat to nearby plantations and use the Good Word to preach local slaves back into submission. Yet viewing the appalling conditions his fellow slaves lived in, and having his new wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) suffer at the hands of white tormentors, awakens a fervor in Nat that leads to his famous, bloody rebellion.
Often, Parker comes across as the first-time director he is; the first 30 minutes are a clumsy mess, shoehorning in Nat's father's story and reinforcing themes that are already quite prevalent. Nat's visions, which are believed to have at least partly inspired the rebellion, are unexplained and casually inserted at random. He's better when he allows the historical context to make his audience cringe; when an errant can of stolen food nearly rolls into view during an owner's interrogation, the tension leaps to 11 without much of a directorial intervention. We know what'll happen if Nat and his family are caught.
What redeems him is the performance. As Nat travels from plantation to plantation with a white owner he once thought of as a friend, Parker gives off the perfect air of subservient disgust toward these white men whom he could outsmart and outfight if given the opportunity. And when he's finally seen enough and slips some mostly undetectable, fire-brand language into his sermons, his passion—and the faces of his congregation—brilliantly meld together into one of the movie's brief bits of joy. It's such a minor victory, but Parker shows how it means volumes.
Birth has other missteps: specifically, Jackie Earle Haley's Raymond Cobb becomes a sort of racism surrogate, reappearing throughout Nat's life to specifically commit major wrongs that contribute to the rebellion. It's awkward to ascribe the horrors of slave ownership and mistreatment to one man, seemingly to provide a satisfying target for Turner's wrath during the film's big confrontation.
Because while Django Unchained was a gleeful revisionist tale of a slave enacting revenge on those who wronged him, The Birth of a Nation is not about how one man overturned slavery (though the last shot may imply otherwise). It's about desperation and hopelessness, about people who suffer so deeply that a moment of free, conscious choice—though their uprising is quite unlikely to succeed—overcomes any fear about punishment or death at the hands of their cruel masters.
In that sense, it's amazing that the film was made at all. Turner's story is a bleak one, as women and children were killed along with slaveholders and the rebellion was put down in swift, violent fashion. Yet what Parker captures so perfectly, and why Birth is important, is the sense of utter torment held in nearly every pair of eyes. It is one of the more relentless depictions of slavery ever captured on screen, and its slow, detailed build to the uprising is both brutal and necessary.
You can't review The Birth of a Nation without referencing Parker's 1999 rape acquittal (for which Jean Celestin, who receives a "story by" credit, was initially convicted), in large part because his film hinges upon two brutal rape scenes. The controversy doesn't make Birth any better or worse cinematically, but Parker's responses don't indicate a man who remotely understands the deep, lingering impact of sexual assault. It has also allowed for legitimate cultural commentary on whether Parker is the right person to tell this particular story.
But now it's been told. And, if you can separate the man from the art in any capacity, you'd be hard-pressed to deny that he's done a stirring job. Through sheer willpower, and in a time when many Americans need to be reeducated on what their predecessors were complicit in and how their fellow man suffered, Parker has brought a near-untellable story of crippling bondage to the national stage. That's a feat worthy of the hype bestowed.