Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a slave who lives on a plantation owned by a very fair (by slave-owner standards) and generally gentle man named Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Nat, who can read, is a preacher and holds services for the slaves on the plantation. With discontent and whispers of insurrection sweeping across the state of Virginia, Samuel receives a paid offer to let Nat go around and preach to the slaves on the other plantations. In dire need of extra money, Samuel accepts and begins to tour Nat around. Having never been exposed to serious wrongdoings, Nat realizes how bad other slaves are treated and comes to the realization that he can no longer stand idle and preach the word of the Lord. Eventually, he decides to plan a rebellion in the hopes of freeing his people.
The film is directed, written and stars Nate Parker as the lead, in what can only be described as a powerful debut for someone who has never wrote or directed a feature before. In fact, he was able to get some very strong performances out of nearly every cast member, including Armie Hammer who I find to be very hit or miss.
Birth of a Nation is a film that couldn’t be more relevant in a day where the Black Lives Matter movement is a top talking point across the country. I wasn’t very familiar with the story of Nat Turner and while the film’s story may be conventional in the way it’s told, it is still fascinating and very engaging. There isn’t one moment in the film where you are not on Nat’s side even when he reaches his tipping point and decides to take matters into his own hands. The pacing of the film and the way Nat is educated about the society which he lives in is one of the reasons why the movie is able to pull you in and move you along at any pace it so desires.
The biggest revelation to me, and the moment where Nat became a truly independent and free-thinking slave, was when he had an opportunity to read other parts of the bible. Nat’s bible was always with him and as the local slave preacher he had only been allowed to read certain passages, passages that granted people the right to enslave others and discipline them, but when he began to read everything else, that’s when his eyes truly opened. That’s when he went from his master’s favorite to getting the whip for disobeying and talking back to the white priest. After taking the punishment, he doesn’t’ let the white folks see him in pain and manages to persevere no matter how painful it is. It’s a scene that is briefly unbalanced, but it’s such an important moment because it’s where he officially decides that he won’t take this living situation anymore, that something has to be done.
That moment is truly significant and one that correlates well with what’s happening on the streets today. People are standing up even in the face of violence and saying and doing what needs to be said and done (for the most part retaliating without violence). I don’t want the film to spread the wrong message but I do think for people who aren’t black, it’s an important film to see to help bring a bit more clarity to the current situation. While 12 Years a Slave was a deeper and better film overall, this one is more applicable to helping people connect the dots and help others see why this current movement is so important.
Between the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing issue of diversity in Hollywood, Birth of a Nation is more than just another slave film, it’s one with multiple messages that will hopefully resonate in a positive way deeply with those that see it. Apart from its correlations to modern day society, the film itself has a solid script, is very well directed, superbly acted, and beautifully shot, culminating in a high quality, Oscar caliber film that’s sure to make waves when it hits theaters later this week.