Based on a true story, “The Birth of a Nation,” tells the tale of a male slave in the early nineteenth century named Nat Turner (Nate Parker). Nat has it pretty good for a slave, the family that owns him is kind and he is even given a chance to learn to read the Bible by his owner’s wife Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). This gift allows him to preach to other slaves on his plantation. But as Nat grows into adulthood, realities of being a slave become clearer to him.
When a drought hits home of Virginia, the plantation owners, including his own owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) have problems just feeding their own slaves and they each make due in ways that are more than unkind. And in order to keep the slaves in line, they hire Nat, via his owner of course, to preach to the slaves to keep them in line.
As Nat travels from one plantation to another and sees how his own kind is mistreated he starts to transform. And unfortunately, so does his owner. Samuel takes to drinking more and more and kind ways seem to be a way of the past.
Then Nat is presented with a situation that requires him to use his skills as a preacher, but his decision is met with hostility by Samuel and Nat is punished. It is during this punishment that Nat will later tell that he is visited by the Lord and is told that it is time to free his people. And thus begins a bloody slave rebellion. Unfortunately, Nat’s timing was too soon, as it took a civil war 40 years later, to finally set his people free.
“The Birth of the Nation,” is not a completely true story, as it states right at the beginning of the film - it is based on a true story and the film’s creator, Nate Parker did take quite a bit of creative license with the original story of Nat Turner. But keep in mind that it is common to make such changes to a true story in a narrative film.
There has been a lot of controversy about “The Birth of a Nation.” The film broke records at the Sundance Film Festival and more recently the personal story of the filmmaker Nate Parker’s youthful rape trial (in which he was found innocent). I find all this information irrelevant to the actually film, and thus, I will grade this film just like any other film.
I thought that “The Birth of the Nation,” was a gripping and sensitive portrait of plantation life through the eyes of a slave. It is a beautifully written film, with a screenplay by Nate Parker and story by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin.
Nate Parker did a masterful job as director and principal actor and Armie Hammer was notably good in his role as a slave owner spiraling downward as he tries to hold on to his father's plantation. Penelope Ann Miller as the loving white woman in Nat’s life brought a sensitive note to this film, which she is so effectively able at doing so. Also another excellent performer is the beautiful Aja Naomi King, who played Cherry.
I especially enjoyed the cinematography by Elliott Davis and the Music by Henry Jackman. Jackman’s use of choral music suited the film perfectly.
“The Birth of a Nation," is overall an excellent film. It at times is hard to watch. But any film about slavery is. The one thing that I find interesting is that both Nate Parker and D.W. Griffith turn to the days of slavery as “birth” of our nation – not the Revolutionary War. I wonder why? Is this because it was the first thing that truly tested us as nation? Perhaps so. Just a little over a hundred year later after the first film, I am happy to see an African American filmmaker retake the title for a new generation of film-goers.
“The Birth of a Nation,” is rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity and has a run-time of 2 hours.