ReelBob: ‘The Birth of a Nation’
By Bob Bloom
“The Birth of a Nation” is a powerful film, made more so within the nation’s current racial and political climate.
The film’s title is taken from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic, considered Hollywood’s first epic motion picture. That film, which dealt with two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction, has been criticized for its stereotypical portrayals of blacks (most portrayed by white actors in blackface) and its heroic representation of the Ku Klux Klan.
This “Birth of a Nation” tells the story of a little known slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Southampton, Va., in 1831. That revolt lasted just two days, during which Turner and his followers killed between 50 and 60 members of slaveholding families, including women and children.
The movie stars Nate Parker, who also produced, directed, wrote the screenplay and co-wrote the story with his Penn State University friend, Jean McGianni Celestin.
The feature, “based on true events,” details Turner’s life from childhood through his slow evolution from slave and fledging preacher to defiant leader, who believes he was doing the work of God by staging his uprising.
The film is not set among the grandeur of the fabulous plantations seen in such films as “Gone With the Wind” or even “12 Years a Slave.”
The slaveholders in Turner’s orbit are landowner-farmers struggling to stay afloat and earn as much profit as possible through the use of enslaved black men, women and children.
“The Birth of a Nation” offers three depictions of white owners: humane but condescending, as portrayed by Penelope Ann Miller’s Mrs. Turner who teaches Nat to read — but only from the Bible; her son, Armie Hammer’s alcoholic Sam Turner who mostly treats his chattel fairly, unless it benefits him financially or economically to do otherwise; and Jackie Earle Haley’s Raymond Cobb, a brutal slave catcher who looks upon blacks as inferior and treats them as animals rather than people.
Haley’s portrayal is the most cartoonish in the movie and one of its main flaws.
The film succeeds and impresses in showing Turner’s realization of how this oppressive and cruel system continually degrades himself and other blacks.
When Sam Turner, to make money, takes Nat around to other farms and small plantations to preach and mollify the slaves that work them, Nat sees the indignities heaped upon these unfortunates.
At one farm, an owner uses a chisel to knock out the front teeth of a chained slave who refuses to eat in order to feed him. At another, he sees a little white girl leading a black girl about the same age on a leash.
The final straw for Nat Turner is the brutalization of his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who strayed too far from her master’s plantation to fill a bucket with water.
Turner sees his rebellion as a righteous cause, quoting Scripture to defend his actions.
He explains to his followers that he was taught to preach the biblical passages that focus on submission; now, he is reading passages that denounce slavery and advocate rising up against oppression.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a remarkable movie for many reasons. One is the restraint Parker uses during the insurrection. He could have been exploitative, graphically showing the killings. Instead, most take place off-camera or are depicted in a manner that is brutal, but not graphic.
Many sequences resonate, but none is as telling — or relatable to society today — as the one after the failed rebellion when Turner is on the run. He furtively makes contact with Cherry, who tells him that his actions have raised the fears of whites, and as a result, they are killing people “for no reason but being black.”
Parker’s vision owes much to films such as “Spartacus” and “Gladiator,” more than “12 Years a Slave” or “Roots.”
It is a movie that — for outside reasons — is courting controversy. But that is just noise viewers should deflect because of the command that Parker brings to his subject.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a fierce and furious depiction of one of the dark periods in American history that most citizens would like to forget and feel uncomfortable about dredging up.
Unfortunately, at times, to move ahead we need to look back. And that is what Parker’s movie is urging us to do.
“The Birth of a Nation” may bring some to tears, and others may feel angry. Yet, its most important contribution will be to make us all think.
Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
3½ stars out of 4
(R), disturbing violent content, brief nudity