“The Birth of a Nation” is written, directed, and stars Nate Parker, while also starring Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, and Aunjanue Ellis. The film is about the true story of Nat Turner, a slave, and preacher to his fellow slaves, who creates a rebellion against his brutal owners.
This is a film that, amongst its heavy controversy, I was very excited to see. This movie won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award at Sundance, and was sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17 million afterwards, so that told me that people were really liking what the film had to offer, even if many, many people have questionable thoughts about its director/star, Nate Parker.
Controversy or not, Nate Parker shines both as the lead in this film and with his ability behind the camera. Parker is tremendous as Nat Turner, bringing the character loads of emotion and loads of heart, as well as being a rather intriguing persona, as he is not just a run of the mill hero here. Turner’s actions can be considered many things, and I like that the movie goes there and lets the audience decide what they think instead of just painting Turner a blemish-free picture.
I expected Parker’s performance to be great, but what stunned me was just how much I liked his directorial choices here. Parker doesn’t play it safe by any means, and you can tell by the shots he chooses, the cuts he makes, and simply the whole style in which Parker decides to tell this story that this man has a knack for directing, and I was truly engrossed with Parker’s style of storytelling for most of the movie. Parker knows the story is an important one, so he chooses to take his time and really build the characters, and I think it is a move that pays off in strides.
There are some great supporting performances in this film around Parker, with Armie Hammer and Aja Naomi King really bringing some excellent work to their characters. Hammer as Samuel Turner, the owner of Nat, shows a somewhat different side to slave-owners, while still also showing the harsh truths of the early 1800s accurately. While I was happy to see Hammer do something very good because of how much I love “The Social Network”, it was King as the young slave Cherry that really grabbed my attention. King is powerful, sweet, and heartbreaking all at once in this movie and she really lifted up her scenes, even matching Parker’s excellence when the two shared screen time.
The score and cinematography are both superb, with excellent work being done to make this film look and sound incredibly powerful. The way the camera lingers on these dark, yet beautiful portraits made my jaw drop at some points, and the pounding score only added to that effect. There isn’t all that much action, but when it is there, it feels as real and as gritty as it gets, with both the camera and the eye-popping colors of blood really adding something to what could have been a very generic scene.
There really wasn’t all that much that I had an issue with in this film, only some minor things here and there. While the buildup pays off in the long run, and I respect the choice made by Parker to really build the character of Nat Turner, there were some points where the film slowed mightily. Minor pacing issues aside, the only real complaint I can have is because of the controversy that’s outside of the film.
If you don’t know, Nate Parker and Jean Celestin, the co-writer of this movie, were charged with sexual assault 11 years ago, and the charges were eventually dropped. However, Parker has not done a great job with the details of this case when promoting the film, with very inconsistent answers to interviews and, overall, dropping his film off the face of the Oscar map. Minor spoilers here, but why this is important is because there are two rape scenes in the film, neither of which have any historical context. Now, when I watched the film, they didn’t bother me much at all, but looking back I see why they’ve been so heavily scrutinized, and it’s because Parker uses rape as simply a pawn to describe the horrors, never really showing the emotional destruction it causes to the women. I would love to say a film, especially one this great, could stand on its own without context, but Parker really made that hard, and because of that, the whole film has a large blemish on it.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a powerful, confident directorial debut from Nate Parker, and has a fantastic performance from him, as well as from the rest of the cast. The movie is emotionally haunting at times, visually beautiful in others, and it’s a shame, but if it weren’t for outside factors, this could be one of the best movies of the year. Even with all of that being said, “The Birth of a Nation” is a powerful movie and one that really makes the most of its source material.