In the last few years, we’ve seen two major films that tackle slavery in America: Steve McQueen’s mournful, elegiac 12 Years a Slave and Quentin Tarantino’s rococo revenge flick Django Unchained. In a way, if you split the two you get The Birth of a Nation, the directorial debut from Nate Parker, who also stars as real-life slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.
Like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave, Nat’s rebellious spirit is awakened only gradually. As a young child, he learned to read, stunning the mistress of his plantation (Penelope Anne Miller), who takes him under her wing. In a telling moment of misguided noblesse oblige, she steers young Nat away from the “white people’s books” and instead teaches him the Bible. As he gets older, he becomes a pastor to his fellow slaves, while also acquiring a kind of special status with his dissolute master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer).
Nat’s life changes when a self-serving preacher (Mark Boone Junior) suggests that Samuel take Nat from plantation to plantation so he can preach the gospel to slaves—for a fee. Of course, they want Nat to preach a very specific message—obey your master and be meek. At first, Nat goes along with this, but the more he travels, the more his eyes open to the horrors of slavery and the viciousness of the slave masters. One of many turning points comes when his own wife (Aja Naomi King) is gang raped (the scene itself was removed from the film, in the wake of the controversy surrounding Parker’s personal history), sparking an anger in him that does not diminish. He decides to gather some men and lead a slave rebellion. His message to them is clear—we may not survive this rebellion, but we will be free men trying.
The Birth of a Nation doesn’t have the visual poetry of 12 Years a Slave, nor the anarchic energy of Django Unchained, but it is an impressive debut from Parker. It helps that he has a great leading man—himself. There’s a scene where Nat is dutifully preaching to an assembled group of slaves and a change comes over him—his voice raises, the words become more urgent and passionate—and as the slaves cry out in collective euphoria, the slave masters stand by, befuddled. The whole cast is quite good—with Hammer particularly effective as the morally compromised slave owner—although some of the roles (Jackie Earl Haley as a vicious redneck; Roger Guenveur Smith as a fretful and obedient house slave) feel stock. The film’s pretty direction is broken up, inevitably, by scenes of horrific violence—a beheading, a whipping. One scene in a barn, where two slaves are being inhumanly punished for some unknown minor offense was so disturbing, I had to look away.
This is also a deeply spiritual film that explores the power of faith and the Bible’s dual messages of obedience and insurgence. Mostly, Parker lays out the events in a straight forward fashion but, in keeping with this spirituality, there are moments that touch upon magic realism—a butterfly on a dead boy’s lapel; a “sign” from God in the form of a solar eclipse; a vision before Nat of his wife as an angel. The rebellion itself is brutally violent, cathartic, and terrifying. In the end, it becomes clear that this is not one of Tarantino’s florid revenge fantasies, but a true story of the men and women who were willing to pay the ultimate price for freedom.