“The Birth of a Nation” Movie Review


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     There’s no doubt in today’s social climate marred by ever increasing racial tension that a film like writer/director Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” will be viewed from multiple different perspectives.  The notion that the atrocities committed against African-Americans during slavery somehow correlates to perceived injustice today is something I don't agree with, simply because the people who owned slaves in 1830s America possess not a single ounce of the moral fabric of which I am composed of.  Sure, the color of their skin is the same as mine, but as we know, one’s skin color does not and should not determine how a person is to be judged.  And that works both ways.  What “The Birth of a Nation” should represent, is the arrival of a virtuoso filmmaker in Parker, who masterfully tells the story of Nat Turner and an uprising he led against slave owners in 1831.  Even after I left the theater, I found myself shaken to the deepest depths of my soul, eyes watering, and that sick feeling in my stomach.  

     “The Birth of a Nation” is an important film, especially because of its historical significance.  It’s a story that needed to be told, because so often we either forget or overlook the struggles of other people as we are bogged down with our own in everyday life.  Parker, who pulls triple duty by directing, writing the screenplay, and starring as Nat Turner, knows this is brutal and dramatic territory.  It’s a story that had to be handled carefully, skirting the line between the horrific violence associated with the time and the humanity of the characters on both sides.  It was smart of Parker to begin the story with a young Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa), who was born into slavery and owned by the Turner family who resided in Southhampton County, Virginia.  Early scenes establish a connection with Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), the widowed head of household, and Nat who she teaches to read by way of the bible, which in turn has him grow into the role of a preacher when he reaches adult hood. 

     Elizabeth’s son, Samuel (Arnie Hammer), now runs the family farm when we are thrust into the story over a decade later, as Nat is now Samuel’s driver and functions as a preacher conducting services for the farm’s other slaves.  At least at first, Parker gives us the indication Samuel has a bigger heart than other owners, but then you think to yourself regardless of his goodwill, he’s still a person who believes it is his right to own a human being.  I still can’t get rid of the foul taste in my mouth just from the mere thought of someone being in some sort of servitude.  Nonetheless, Nat and the other slaves on the Turner farm make the best with what they have, which isn't much.  

     In one of the harder scenes to watch, Nat attends a slave auction with Samuel as we see African-Americans marched on a makeshift stage, humiliated in front of an audience of would be owners who are bidding on these people at the price of a couple hundred dollars as if they are nothing more than a slab of meat.  The human race has certainly seen better days, and I am regularly stunned at how cruel and thoughtless people were then and how they still are today.  Nat pleads with Samuel to buy one of the slaves “for sale” at a price of $275.00, a woman who looks to have been endlessly tortured and whose self respect has been completely crushed from the weight of an unbearable existence.  But soon, under the care of Nat and the other slaves at the Turner farm, we learn her name is Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and she and Nat immediately take a liking to one another.

     It’s not incredibly difficult to predict the story arc Parker is using here.  Relationships are formed from within the group, as well as between Samuel and Nat, but eventually the business aspect of owning slaves and the consistent mistreatment of these people begins to break bonds we may have thought could stand the test of time.  At its core, “The Birth of a Nation” is a revenge story, not unlike Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”.  But what separates the two is the detailed focus on the lives of Nat, Cherry, and several others who attend religious services, get married, have children, and live life as happily as possible given the hand they’re dealt.  But to many of the slave owners, that isn’t good enough since they make it abundantly clear where African-Americans stand in their proverbial pecking order.  In movies, there are always good guys and bad guys.  Parker spends most of the second act establishing exactly who the evil doers are and I’m certain no one will question the actions of Nat and the other slaves once they finally decide they’ve had enough.

     Perhaps a more obvious comparison here is Steve McQueen’s 2013 Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave”, which admittedly lessens the blow of Parker’s film from a cinematic perspective since the images of “12 Years a Slave” are still fresh in mind.  Both serve as important films depicting one of the many ugly stretches of history in the United States, but “The Birth of a Nation” doesn’t have the feel good ending of “12 Years a Slave”.  Instead, Parker tells Nat’s story with the kind of honesty people need to hear and not soon forget.  Is his film one of the best of the year?  I think so.  On an emotional level, I haven’t been this deeply moved by anything I’ve seen in the last year.  As an early 2016 Sundance darling, “The Birth of a Nation” was deemed a savior for the ongoing “Oscars So White” controversy, but awards aside, I hope people not only see this film, but also understand its message.  It should not be confused or used as fuel for what people believe is going on today, but rather it should stand as a historical perspective on how important it is to take color completely out of the equation and live together as people on equal ground.  GRADE: A