It’s rare that my theatre gets an independent film, even moreso when that film exceeds my expectations.
Jumping right in, there are clear Biblical parallels that can be drawn. Nat, being brought up alongside his master’s boy, is reminiscent of the brotherhood of Moses and Pharaoh, before the Jews’ mass exodus from Egypt, as well as he’s the one that eventually leads his people on their path to freedom. There is also a strong mirroring between Turner and Christ, especially in his preaching, but also in all the trials and tribulation—and ultimate martyr death—he suffers. I also saw hints of other cinematic inspiration in the crafting of this work, including Braveheart.
This film is brimming with dramatic, gripping performances by the almost-entirely-African-American lead cast, but also the female supporting cast, which truly put the “strong” in “strong-willed mother figure”. With that—and hearkening back to all the history lessons ever taught me—I’m still not willing to buy that all masters or their families were stringent with their slaves; there are always forward-thinkers, even quiet ones, and I refuse to believe that they didn’t permeate some of these plantation settings—like seen in this film—helping the slaves where they could. Every aspect of Nat Turner’s narrative was expertly portrayed, and I really did forget that I was watching a movie. Made for a mere $10M, it didn’t have the feel of an indie film, which just confirms the expertise of the filmmakers.
That said, let’s talk about the historical accuracies and content. I only have what knowledge the educational system deemed I should know, so I don’t really have much to go on…except what I saw on-screen. The portrayed brutality and lasciviousness of these slave masters is—in order to align our audience mindset with that of the oppressed—needed, cinematically, to get the point of the filmmakers across. While stomach-churning in some instances, the graphic content really conveys the distinct hierarchy in the Antebellum South, and—despite having happened more than a century ago—had me really rooting for Turner and his rag-tag rebels to overcome.
Nate Parker’s on-screen presence and eloquence as a speaker is captivating; he had me believing that he really was Nat Turner. His direction, as well, was expert, with one instance coming to mind where the camera’s shaky movement was used to convey his character’s anger to the audience. A good part of the movie is a record of all the instances that led to Turner’s “cracking” and leading his bloody revolt—not just the injustices done to his people, but also those close to him getting hurt. The film really put me in the period by filming on-location in Savannah, Georgia, giving it the atmosphere needed to craft such a story.
Final ‘Risk Assessment: *****/. The Birth of a Nation is as American of a story as they come. It’s not just a story of righting wrongs, it’s an epic all of its own, about “We the People” fighting—even dying—for what they believe in. I’m glad that I was able to see it in the theatre setting, rather than waiting for home video release; the epic story of Nat Turner’s Rebellion deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Next review: Doctor Strange