Mark Reviews Movies

The Birth of a Nation (2016)


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Nate Parker

Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis, Esther Scott, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Roger Guenveur Smith, Mark Boone Jr., Gabrielle Union, Dwight Henry, Jackie Earle Haley

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity)

Running Time: 2:00

Release Date: 10/7/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 6, 2016

The main takeaway of The Birth of a Nation is that Nat Turner's story needs to be told, although it probably could use a different telling than this one. The primary contemporary account of Turner's 1831 uprising against slave owners in Virginia, allegedly recounted by Turner to a lawyer before his trial, is one of a man possessed by religious fervor, which led him and a group of rebels to kill dozens of white slave owners—men, women, and children—over the course of two days.

Stories like Turner's are seldom, if ever, told in history books and popular culture. On the rare occasion that they are told, they're met with outrage over the violence exacted and the body count that—if we're being completely honest here—never accompanies similar stories of rebellion against injustice.

We all know the reason. Does it need to be said? Does it need to be pointed out how and why writer/director Nate Parker intentionally takes his title from D.W. Griffith's rancid epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction, in which the rise of Ku Klux Klan is presented as an honorable and justified rebellion against the integration of freed slaves into society? If the reason isn't clear, it doesn't need to be said, because whoever doesn't understand likely never will.

Parker's movie takes a fairly straightforward approach to both Turner and his rebellion. It's the story of a man who sees injustice after injustice, one act of cruelty after another, and stays silent on the matter until there comes a point that he no longer can.

The way Parker's screenplay frames it, Turner is something of a selfish revolutionary. He does, indeed, remain quiet and inactive whenever the unjust cruelty affects anyone other than himself. He will attempt some minor sabotage, selecting words from Scripture to appeal to the anger of captives while their captors are either too dumb or too insensible to realize what is being said. He will look shocked and dismayed when he sees a slave—even members of his own family—whipped, beaten, tortured, or killed, but something prevents him from taking action in those moments.

Nat, whom Parker himself portrays, does not break his silence until the system of slavery actively attempts to break him. That's the turning point. Nothing else pushes him past the line.

There's a reason for this, and it's one of the more fascinating and subversive elements of Parker's movie. It's the portrayal of Nat's master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who inherits his family's plantation and seems adverse to the outward displays of cruelty within the system of slavery, although not the inherent cruelty of that system.

As a child, Samuel played with young Nat, who was encouraged to learn to read the Bible (The other books on the shelves are only "for white folks") by Samuel's mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). Nat was sent to the fields after the death of Samuel's father (A shot of a cotton field that seems to go on without end is particularly striking).

As an adult, Samuel sees Nat as something more. A local preacher (Mark Boone Jr.) suggests that Nat, who has become a minister himself, be taken to local plantations to preach the Scriptures to slaves in order to quell any thoughts of rebellion. Samuel takes the advice, since his own plantation is struggling financially.

Samuel is, by comparison to other slave owners and within the restrictions of the slave system, a decent man. He is visibly disgusted by the sight of a group of malnourished slaves, whose master has decided to limit them to one meal a day to save some money, and he recoils at the sight of a slave having his teeth chiseled from his mouth in order to force-feed him.

He's a man with a conscience, even if it only goes so far, but Parker doesn't exempt Samuel from guilt. There are subtle details, such as the way Samuel and Nat take long carriage rides together in complete silence, and more obvious ones that serve as reminders of Samuel's complicity in slavery. It's only in the final shot of the character that Parker allows Samuel a moment of realization—far too late for it to be of any good to anyone.

The real act of subversion here is how Parker understands that Nat's somewhat elevated status among his fellow slaves keeps his rebellion dormant for so long. Under the circumstances, he leads a semi-normal life—raised by his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and grandmother (Esther Scott) after his father (Dwight Henry) is murdered by slave catchers, marrying Cherry (Aja Naomi King), raising his own child. For a long while, Nat's attitude toward his condition is much like that of Isaiah (Roger Guenveur Smith), who is assigned to tasks within the plantation house. A fear that it could be much worse keeps them both silent.

Turner's revolt only comes after he is directly affected—"betrayed" by a master who previously "allowed" him the chance of relative happiness. It is strange that this interpretation of Turner's rebellion, which has been qualified for almost two centuries by varying degrees of racial prejudice, tempers the action and the obvious reason for it with a simplistic revenge motive and vague spiritualism. The Birth of a Nation turns Nat Turner into a hero mostly for himself.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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