Set against the antebellum South, THE BIRTH OF A NATION follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities – against himself and his fellow slaves – Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
User Reviews: "Anytime anyone is enslaved, or in any way deprived of his liberty, if that person is a human being, as far as I am concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again." Malcolm X
The antebellum South had not been kind to slaves, if you look only at the award-winning 12 Years a Slave, in which Solomon Northrup, an upstate New York free man, was sold into slavery. But you can now relive that excruciating experience from the religious and moral perspective of a slave, Nat Turner (Nate Parker), in Nate Parker’s realistic and dramatic The Birth of a Nation.
While both men are mercilessly whipped in the two films, 12 Years remains superior in its scope and complexity. Yet, Birth is strong in deeply exploring the hero’s motivations for the rebellion he eventually foments in 1831. It shows his daily humiliations and hardening in the face of unfettered violence, his growing reliance on the Bible for rebellion, and finally the brutal rape of his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King). The film graphically depicts the violence and is equally indulgent showing the growing love between Nate and her.
As in 12 Years, Birth takes care to show the close relationship between slave and master, Samuel (Armie Hammer). In both cases, master might seem at times benign but not over the length of the film. The owner becomes a symbol of the once proud South now reduced to exploiting human beings, in this case black slaves. In Birth, the progression to violence is slow, even as the ultimate violence comes on us.
Parker has a director’s eye for the ironies inherent in the beautiful Virginia mansion (actually filmed in Savannah) and the poverty of the servants’ quarters, the empathy of Samuel’s mother, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), and the growing intolerance of her son. Thank Geoffrey Kirkland’s production design— white plantation houses and those iconic drooping willows—to a stirring, sometimes too intrusive, score by Henry Jackson. Elliot Davis’s camera is particularly strong in night shots. Director Parker’s slow pullback shot of the mass hanging is memorable.
Although this film does not have the epic perspective of its namesake by D. W. Griffith (1915), it is nonetheless a respectable entry into the canon of film helping to reconcile the white and black populace, the birth of tolerance.