In this emotionally compelling, narratively shallow biopic of former slave turned revolutionary Nat Turner, filmmaker Nate Parker takes back the title The Birth of a Nation, from D.W. Griffith’s racist epic that defined narrative cinema for years. On a plantation in Virginia, Turner (writer-director Parker) lived, worked, loved and preached. Personal tragedy (some of the film’s fictionalization of Turner’s life) leads the slave-cum-preacher to stage a rebellion that looks a lot like mass murder.
The film invites moral questions of such slaughter in the face of the evil and immoral institution that stoked its fires. The Birth of a Nation also puts to bed any notions of a good master, as Turner’s benevolent-seeming owner, Samuel (Armie Hammer), proves that ultimately his belief in his rights as possessor trump his kindness.
The violent final act harnesses a great deal of power. Due to its subject matter, comparisons to the more artful 12 Years a Slave abound, though The Birth of a Nation has more in common with Braveheart. Think about it. It’s a about a violent struggle for freedom that ended in a gruesome death and posthumous success.
As an actor, Parker is excellent; his Turner is religiously fervent but definitely cogent when he decides murder to be the only way to stop something worse. Parker proves to be an above average filmmaker as well. He presents a beautiful South dominated by an ugly institution. His scenes are usually taut and the imagery potent. He combines stained glass and murder as organically as Dario Argento. It will be interesting to see the legacy of this powerful but challenging film develop.