THE STORY – Nat Turner is an enslaved Baptist preacher who lives on a Virginia plantation owned by Samuel Turner. With rumors of insurrection in the air, a cleric convinces Samuel that Nate should sermonize to other slaves, thereby quelling any notions of an uprising. As Nate witnesses the horrific treatment of his fellow man, he realizes that he can no longer just stand by and preach. On Aug. 21, 1831, Turner’s quest for justice and freedom leads to a violent and historic rebellion in Southampton County.
THE CAST – Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller & Gabrielle Union
THE TEAM – Nate Parker (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
By Matt N.
Talking about “The Birth Of A Nation” might just be the single hardest film to take on its own merits this year. There is a ton of controversy surrounding writer, director, actor and producer Nate Parker due to his 1999 rape charge he was eventually acquitted of. The film also has a confusing message of leveraging the teachings of Christianity towards acts of violence as a means of retaliation and punishment. However, despite all of this I believe the film deserves to be judged for what it is. In this respect, Nate Parker mostly achieves what it is that he sets out to do with “The Birth Of A Nation” with flaws throughout. And can you blame him? This is his debut in the director’s chair after all.
Since the day he was born, Nat Turner (Nate Parker) has been a slave to the Turner plantation owned by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Nat has always found comfort in the teachings of God through the Holy Bible and is eventually used as a means by Samuel to preach on other plantations for the other slaves for profit. Seeing the horrors that he has amongst other slaves and experiencing a few personal horrors himself and to his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), Nat decides to make a change. On August 21st, 1831, Nat takes justice into his own hands as he inspires others to rebel against their slave owners and rise up to the injustices of slavery.
With a hand in writing, producing, directing and playing the lead role of Nat Turner himself, Nate Parker’s greatest achievement in “The Birth Of A Nation” is his emotional and thunderous performance as the preacher turned freedom fighter. Every glance, emotional beat and powerful burst of energy is absolutely magnetic and holds your attention. His character arc is fully believable and his final moments on screen are some of the most powerful you will see all year.
Next up is Parker’s producing of the film where he was able to bring many other talents together to create “The Birth Of A Nation.” The story of how he independently financed and raised over $8 million for the film is incredible in it of itself. But we are here to judge the final product. In that regard let’s start with the other cast members who do their part, with Armie Hammer and Aja Naomi King managing to stand out amongst a large cast of characters. There is the cinematography by Elliot Davis which captures the South in bright white hues to highlight God’s light shining on the world below. Henry Jackman’s score is beautiful and hits all of the moving notes it needs to enhance the mood of the film. However, if there was one flaw on the technical side of the film, I would have to say it is the editing by Steven Rosenblum. There are a few cuts which feeling jarringly abrupt and a poorly edited montage sequence that made me question how the man who edited both “Glory” and “Braveheart” (Two films that this one draws heavy comparisons to) managed to do such a subpar job.
Parker’s screenplay is his next best effort as the writing is eloquent and thoughtful in the questions it presents regarding fighting injustice with actions of violence. It may not be perfect and the result may ring untrue for some who feel that Turner’s interpretation of the word of God is wrong but it still strikes a chord nonetheless, especially when one considers how many people all throughout history have killed in the name of God.
And finally, there is the directing by Parker himself which stands as the least impressive aspect of the film. As much as I appreciate Parker’s efforts in bringing this story to the screen with the amount of passion he had invested into the story, character and project, I still strongly feel that this needed to be in the hands of a more seasoned director. For every moment of brilliance (Such as the film’s final moments), there is a moment of heavy-handedness that illustrates Parker’s inexperience. One shot in particular of an actual angel staring at the audience annoyed me in particular.
So is “The Birth Of A Nation” the greatest film ever made? Not even close. Does Nate Parker want you to think so? It’s not that hard to imagine so. The film is well intentioned, though confusing in its message. It’s beautiful yet imperfectly constructed. Through it all and despite other personal outside factors relating to the man himself, I have to commend Nate Parker’s overall effort here. His performance as Nat Turner at the very least deserves Oscar consideration. The telling of Nat Turner’s story deserves to be delivered to the world, seen and discussed throughout all time so that in the future we only refer to that “other” film from 1915 with the same title as only that and nothing more.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Nate Parker’s powerful and rousing performance. The film’s inspiring true story is told with anger and passion by Parker in both the director’s chair and through the screenplay.
THE BAD – Parker’s lack of experience as a director hurts the film overall.