The Birth of a Nation

Directed By: Nate Parker

Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union

With President Obama wrapping his historic tenure as the President of these United States and the recent unveiling of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there are plenty of historic milestones around which I could open up this review.  With the enduring scars of racial injustices that are most prevalent in an epidemic of unjustified and malicious police shootings of people of color, I could start out on a more somber note.  I can't find it within myself to talk about either because the election has finally started to enter a full state of disarray. That's right.  I'm talking about the implosion of the GOP led by Donald Trump, which really started a couple of weeks ago. 

Sniffles and all, Trump failed miserably in his first presidential debate against Clinton.  Tick.  Trump's 1995 tax returns were released by the New York Times.  Tick.  Trump's shameful comments in the hot mic video leaked.  Boom goes the dynamite!  With the Republican Party in complete chaos, I find it very interesting that it took this long.  It wasn't his stubbornly racist remarks about the Central Park Five.  It wasn't his xenophobic insistence on banning all Muslims from entering the country.  It wasn't even his now hypocritical comments calling Mexican immigrants rapists or his offensive remarks and behavior toward former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.  What ultimately proved to be the tipping point for the ailing political party was the misogynistic comments Trump made some eleven years ago about a white woman.  I'm not calling BS on the party of Lincoln, but I do smell something a little funny here.  Everything else I've mentioned is equally grotesque and reprehensible, and he should have never been in this position to cause electoral chaos in the first place.  That blame lies with the party and its voters.  Shame on all of them.

As we look to the arrival of The Birth of a Nation and the start of the awards season in earnest, this period piece faces some hypocrisy as well.  On the one hand, it serves up a cinematic taste of the horrors of slavery, notably including the rape of black women at the hands of white oppressors.  On the other hand, it's a film made by two black men who have some dark skeletons in their closet — one of whom was accused of rape but acquitted of all charges while the other was convicted of rape and subsequently had the conviction overturned.  There's some real hypocrisy in this that I must call out up front that will lead many of my readers to opt out of The Birth of a Nation.  To those STMR readers, I must say that I completely understand.  That being said, I think that the story of Nat Turner is a neglected part of American history that needs to be highlighted.  While I have concerns about the messenger as well, I will move forward with review this movie.  

Raised by his mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis) and his grandmother Bridget (Esther Scott), Nat Turner (Nate Parker) has grown up under the oppressive force that is slavery.  After it's revealed that he knows how to read, the lady of the plantation Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) takes a young Nat (Tony Espinosa) under her wings to teach him more about the Bible, a book from which many slave owners frequently pervert scriptures to subversively oppress blacks.  Fast forward some years, and Nat is now the resident preacher on his plantation.  With Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) — the boy with whom he grew up — now the head of the plantation and taking him to other plantations to "preach the gospel" at the request of Reverend Walthall (Mark Boone Junior), Nat finds himself at a crossroads.  As this rebellious spirit in him begins to brew, he comes across Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and finds love.

The Birth of a Nation
is unapologetically black and serves up a much-needed gut-wrenching take on this important but neglected moment in American history.  Nate Parker is no saint given all that we've heard of him in the media as of late, but his first time in the director's chair for a feature film is certainly a strong outing.  There is no doubt that this is a bloody film that gets deep into the brutal particulars of the institution of slavery.  With great costume and make-up work and an ominous backdrop marked by grayish, gritty cinematography, the film firmly immerses us in this dark period in history.  Serving up plenty of biblical scripture, it really captures how the Bible was utilized as a tool of oppression during these times.  Solidly acted by a stellar ensemble, the film boasts a number of quality performances.  Not as disturbing as a film such as 12 Years a Slave and resonating with audiences in a different way, Parker's The Birth of a Nation is an impressive directorial debut.

Parker is not just behind the camera for The Birth of a Nation.  He actually steps in front of the camera as our lead Nat Turner.  Frankly, it's his show for the duration of the movie as we watch how his character responds to the cruelty and malice that belies the institution of slavery.  It's certainly interesting to watch his character grow and evolve over time.  Having a different upbringing from most slaves, Parker at first gives us a somewhat jovial Turner who has faith that all things will work out for his people's good in due time.  As he is increasingly exposed the true barbarism of it all, Parker's Turner becomes increasingly disillusioned and eventually rebellious.  That’s when movie magic happens.  Parker's transformation of Turner makes for one compelling performance.

The Birth of a Nation
is not without its flaws. There are quite a few lulls in the film as we anticipate the uprising.  Aside from Parker's Turner, it's easy to make the case that all the other characters are one-dimensional.  All that being said, the film is a high quality production that shines a light on an important part of history.  The Birth of a Nation gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.