October 12, 2016

The Birth of a Nation: Biopic Revisits Life of Infamous Slave Revolt Leader

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was born into slavery on October 2, 1800 on a sprawling plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. He was a precocious child and had a thirst for knowledge at an early age. He learned to read the Bible with the help of his masters, Samuel (Armie Hammer) and Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). The couple shielded him from the brutality of slavery by allowing him to live and work in the mansion instead of toiling in the cotton fields alongside his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and grandmother (Esther Scott).

Nat grew up and became a deeply religious youth. He became a traveling preacher who was told to spread the word of God to his fellow slaves in the neighboring towns. In that capacity, his job was to keep the oppressed African Americans content with their miserable lot in life by reciting scriptural passages such as “Submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18).

However, the more he witnessed the atrocities associated with slavery, the more outraged he became. And when he became an adult, he surreptitiously started including verses that proclaimed that slavery was evil — such as “Do not become slaves of men.” (1 Corinthians 7:23).

Nat had a miraculous vision in which he was directly ordered by God to set his people free. That transformative moment became the inspiration for him to mount a bloody insurrection that began with slaying his masters and ultimately claimed about 60 more white slave owner’s lives.

All of the above is graphically depicted in The Birth of a Nation, a biopic marking the directorial debut of Nate Parker (The Great Debaters). Parker also co-wrote the script and stars as Nat Turner in this revisionist movie that effectively recasts an infamous slave revolt leader — who has been denigrated by history because of his resort to violence — as a hero.

The compelling drama received both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and had emerged as probably the Best Picture Academy Award favorite until stories about Parker’s having been accused of rape while in college went viral. Nevertheless, judging The Birth of a Nation strictly on the merits, it undeniably deserves its status as a prime Oscar contender.

The movie is an emotionally unsettling alternate version of a controversial chapter of America’s slave history.

Excellent (****). Rated R for brief nudity and disturbing violence. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.