The story of Nat Turner deserves a big screen telling. He inspired his fellow slaves to fight back against their owners and sent shock waves across the South in 1831 when he led the biggest rebellion against the institution of slavery in American history. Nate Parker wrote, directed and stars in a fairly straight forward retelling of the story, though an off-screen controversy has probably hurt the reception of this film. That said, it is a good movie, though not what I was expecting considering the overwhelming Sundance and Toronto festival buzz.
Nat (Nate Parker) grew up in Virginia on the plantation of benevolent slave owners (if there ever was an oxymoron), and the film shows him playing with the son of his owner and being taught to read the Bible by the lady of the house (Penelope Ann Miller). But when the boys become men, though their friendship seems to endure to a point, his friend Samuel becomes his master (Armie Hammer) and the plantation needs money. So Samuel takes advantage of Nat’s well-honed preaching skills, selling his services to other plantation owners to preach subservience to the other slaves. The Birth of a Nation has a very heavy religious tone with Nat hearing the word of God, spouting Bible verses freely, and seeing a solar eclipse as a sign from the Lord. Through traveling around to the other plantations he witnesses the horrifying conditions that other slaves endure and decides to fight the system. One of the atrocities that pushes Nat to fight is the systemic rape of the slave women, including his wife (which is interesting considering that the scandal swirling around the film is Parker’s role in a rape many years ago.) What follows is the famous rebellion where Nat and 70+ slaves from the surrounding plantations kill their owners and take on the militia in a thwarted attempt to seize their arms for an even larger rebellion.
The film as I said is good, but not great. There is a lot of obvious artistry that detracts from the story. The swells of Disney-esque music are intrusive, as are several of the dream sequences. And the characters beyond Nat Turner are pretty one dimensional. It would be interesting to have seen this story told by a more nuanced and experienced director. Parker had a top notch cast but didn’t use them as well as he could have. I’m still wondering what film those people crying, “Masterpiece!” saw at the festivals. See it, but lower your expectations.