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Sundance 2016: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is an explosive and gutting personal project

 

The Birth of a Nation
Directed by Nate Parker
Written by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin
USA, 2016

The Birth of a Nation is a bold vision of preacher Nat Turner’s bloody rebellion against white slave owners in 1831. It’s a thoughtfully crafted feature debut from actor, writer, and director Nate Parker. With the blindsiding emotional punch of this film, he emerges as a startling talent in the lead role. A personal project that was 5 years in the making, it is dedicated to fleshing out a life and incident that has long been kept as a historical footnote. Turner is a man driven by the strength of his religious convictions to push back against the extreme cruelty he and his loved ones experience. The film reclaims the title of the infamously technically brilliant but utterly racist The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith. Made in 1915, Griffith delved into the pain of a South broken by the end of slavery and the indignities that he felt white folks had to endure living side by side with black people. Parker’s film posits the simple idea that America was and still is an imperfect union that needs to rebel and rectify injustices as it evolves as a country. We have to recognize what transpired in order to build something better for us all. The Birth of a Nation is not shockingly revelatory for the acts it dramatizes, but Parker absolutely owns the significance of understanding through empathy and that audiences must have diversity in the identities of storytellers to have a greater grip on the scope of slavery’s legacy.

Parker’s readings of scripture have a fiery intensity to them as he contends with unfathomable tragedy without end. His preacher goes toe-to-toe with a white man quoting the bible to justify his actions. Turning the verse around on the white man’s hypocrisy, we see that Turner intimately knows the morality behind his beliefs and that it frees him from being a servant to anyone on earth. His power lies within, and he can use this to take on those who would hurt the innocent for gain. Armie Hammer finally nabs a major role as Turner’s master after the poor critical receptions of The Lone Ranger and Mirror, Mirror. He’s decent, and offers a middle ground to the extremes of Penelope Ann Miller as the loving source of Turner’s education and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children, The Watchmen) as an unscrupulous slave catcher who treats vulnerable slaves separated from their protective masters in any way he wants. Haley’s snarling voice matches excellently with Parker’s smooth diction.

People will inevitably draw comparisons with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The overwhelming suffering on display is similar in terms of artful close-ups that linger on blood, cotton, dirt, and death. The key differences reside in the ways that both protagonists cope. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Soloman Northup survives enslavement by means of mental resistance. Parker’s Nat Turner reaches his breaking point and uses the tenacity of his faith to become a radical reactionary against ongoing injustice. Importantly, they are both literate men who are based on real people. Nurtured by education, they are able to articulate the horror of their situations to others. This is why slaves were deprived of reading and other resources- because knowledge led to varying degrees of empowerment. Through Northup’s subsequent memoir and Turner’s brutal but articulate uprising, their education imprinted their place in an otherwise muted history of their people controlled by whites in charge of law, education, and government. Some may complain that the only major films with primarily black casts to garner attention or praise are focused on slavery and civil rights, but because stories about and by African Americans were continually erased by hundreds of years of subjugation, another exploration of slavery doesn’t feel repetitive or stale whatsoever. The movie is vital to a conversation that America has long avoided and hesitated to address on film. This story in particular is often addressed only briefly in classrooms and rounding out Turner as a human helps broaden perspectives of this long, dark period of American history. Of course, the staggering nature and scale of the atrocities can’t be fully encapsulated on film, but there are several scenes which are imbued with a deeply moving and empathetic point-of-view that lends a compassionate observance to the fate of some of slavery’s millions of nameless victims.

There are a few flaws with to pick apart. Although Turner’s wife has amazingly realistic make-up effects at one juncture, another character’s gruesome wounds from a whipping don’t look realistic enough, and a severed head that appears definitely looks like a prop. Only a handful of special effects seem unnecessary or underdone and take the audience out of the moment but don’t have an incredible impact on the film’s quality as a whole. Balancing out these minor flubs are astute pairings of image and sound. The use of the song “Strange Fruit” (sung here by Nina Simone but originally a Billy Holiday tune) accompanies a haunting lynching. The Birth of a Nation is a purposeful account of one man’s burden and resilience in captivity. We wallow as an audience in the carnage and like Turner, grapple to find a place for one’s anger. There is no sense that things have been or will be resolved because of Turner, only that he’s serves as an inspiration to carry on a noble struggle. The care given to the narrative is respectful of the mournful path that a good man takes as he is deprived of his most basic rights. The explosivity of this path as captivating as it is difficult to digest.


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