Nate Parker took on the massive task of not only writing and directing his version of “The Birth of a Nation,” but he also stars in the film that recounts the largest slave revolt in United States history. Parker’s passion for the project based on a true story spurred him to create a production that resonates through the ages, but it also blinded him to a few creative flaws.
Nat Turner is an educated slave and minister who decides in 1831 that God has selected him to lead a revolt against white slave owners who are treating their slaves with less respect and consideration than their livestock.
Parker starts the story 20 years earlier with a young Nat being brought into the care of the headmistress of the house, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). He’s taught to read, but the only book he’s allowed to look at is the Bible.
As Turner grows older, he uses his faith to minister to the slaves on neighboring plantations. Other owners believe the minister’s words will help them find better ways to control their slaves. It never dawns on them that no words are going to calm a group of people who are raped, beaten, abused and starved on a whim.
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Turner’s travels to other farms allow him to see a brutal world that he’s not had to face under the generally fair control of his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Slowly, the minister-slave begins to realize that for every scripture that suggests slaves should obey their masters, there’s a passage that suggests this is not the will of God.
The director’s strength is in creating three-dimensional players. He takes Turner from a peaceful soul to an instrument of God’s vengeance with strength and steady believability. Aja Naomi King turns in a performance as Turner’s wife that equals the Oscar-winning efforts by Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave.”
“The Birth of a Nation” is a powerful and moving story that sadly reflects social injustice and crimes against humanity, much of which continues to this day. The biggest flaw is that there are a few places where the first-time director shows more love with the filmmaking process than with this moving and important story.
Parker sets a slow tempo in moving his character from loving husband and father to revolutionary. Part of that was necessary because Turner’s rebellion lasted just 48 hours. But Parker could have spent more time with the rebellion instead of just rushing to the end of the story. This was a pivotal moment in American history, but Parker fails to put the story into proper perspective.
There are also moments when Parker slips into an overly artistic mode, manipulating scenes that were strong enough on their own. This is particularly true for a music montage that features multiple hangings. Those images are soul-searing on their own; they did not need more.
Overall, Parker does a good job as writer, director and star. The product would have been better had he given one of those tasks to someone else. That would have created a dissenting voice when it came to moving the story forward. Without an outside opinion, it’s easy to miss the moments that either don’t work or are more of a distraction than attraction.
Even with its flaws, “The Birth of a Nation” is an unapologetic look at a moment that started the process of redefining this country. It has a power and purpose that is very clear.