Rarely do first-time directors create the dramatic impact that gifted African-American actor Nate Parker has done with his directorial debut “The Birth of a Nation” (*** OUT OF ****) that he also top lined, produced, and co-scripted. The fact that Parker donned so many hats is proof that he is an auteur. Basically, an auteur is a filmmaker who imposes his singular interpretation onto a film in such a way as to dominate it with his vision. Film-making has always been a deeply collaborative endeavor. Nevertheless, when an individual exerts control over so many facets of the production as Parker has managed, we tend to identify the film as a deeply personal work. Twentieth Century Fox’s Searchlight Pictures picked up “The Birth of a Nation,” so the studio had no opportunity to tamper with the film during its production. Parker’s chivalrous reenactment of the bloodthirsty August 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, reminded me of both the Mel Gibson masterpiece “Braveheart” (1995) and the classic Kirk Douglas ancient Roman Empire epic “Spartacus” (1960). Comparatively, “The Birth of a Nation” depicts the efforts of an African-American slave preacher who united his fellow slaves and provoked an uprising against their abusive owners in the antebellum south. Mind you, Parker’s version of those events adheres largely to the facts. Nevertheless, like all good movies, Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin have tampered with events and characters for the sake of exciting cinema. At the same time, however, “The Birth of a Nation” is as tenacious as it is terrifying, and its trenchant condemnation of ‘the Peculiar Institution’ is going to shape not only the sentiments of moviegoers about slavery, but also the way Hollywood portrays slavery in the future. Although it lacks the brilliance of the Oscar-winning 2013 Best Picture “12 Years A Slave,” “The Birth of a Nation” makes Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” look like a nursery rhyme. Parker’s film lives up to its R-rating with incendiary examples of the sadism performed by redneck plantation owners against their virtuous African-American slaves, so the squeamish had better be prepared for gruesome content.
The first time we see young Nat Turner, he is the object of a ghostly African initiation ritual. A shaman recognizes Nat as somebody special because the youngster has three moles lined up in a row down the middle of his chest. According to the shaman, Nat’s anatomical anomaly reflects the youth’s prophetic powers of wisdom, courage and vision. Later, the patronizing wife of a plantation owner, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller of “Adventures in Babysitting”), where Nat grows up, teaches our protagonist how to read the Bible. Nat matures and becomes a minister to his downtrodden fellow slaves and eventually comes to acquire a reputation as a “Prophet.” Eventually, his former childhood playmate who now owns the plantation, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer of “The Lone Ranger”), accompanies Nat on a circuit of the surrounding plantations. Nat preaches the Baptist gospel to his counterparts. Actually, Samuel’s fellow slave owners believed that Nat’s sermons might stifle the fierce rebellious spirit of their slaves that they cannot cure with their whips. Initially, Samuel sympathizes deeply with Nat, and he abhors the unsavory practices of his fellow slave owners. Everything changes drastically when Nat witnesses an atrocity perpetrated by a slave owner on a slave who has gone on a hunger strike. Wielding hammer and chisel, the callous slave owner knocks out the slave’s front teeth and then force-feeds the man with a funnel shoved down his gullet. Later, Nat turns radical himself after three white ruffians rape and nearly beat his wife to the brink of death. Nat assembles his fellow slaves and awaits a sign from God before he pits them against their masters. A solar eclipse incites Nat to mobilize his minions. He slaughters Samuel in cold blood with a hatchet, and his followers embark on an abortive 48-hour rampage that claimed the deaths of 60 whites and more than 200 blacks. Studying your history books will prove more insightful about the trials and tribulations of Nat Turner than this proficiently-orchestrated, vengeance-fueled saga.
Watching “The Birth of a Nation” was a mesmerizing experience. You won’t be able to take your eyes off this enthralling, but inequitable spectacle. “Independence Day” lenser Elliot Davis’ widescreen cinematography endows the film with a sweeping sense of ominous forbidding. The cotton fields, the slave quarters, and the sprawling plantations appear as authentic as possible. Francine Jamison-Tanchuck’s striking wardrobe designs are similarly convincing; she created the costume designs for the vintage Denzel Washington Civil War opus “Glory.” James Edward Ferrell Jr.’s meticulous set decoration and Geoffrey Kirkland’s evocative production design contributed as much to the verisimilitude of the film as the splendid cinematography and costumes. This film looks just as genuine in its imagery as “12 Years A Slave.” The past that “The Birth of a Nation” conjures up is an ugly, eerie past, a greater blight on U.S. history more than Confederate history, since these tragic events occurred before war erupted at Fort Sumter. Unfortunately, “The Birth of a Nation” shares more in common with 1970’s Blaxploitation movies, when Hollywood appealed directly to African-Americans with histrionic hokum such as “Mandingo,” “Drum,” The Black Klansman,” “Sweet Jesus, Preacherman,” and “Slaves.” Typically, the Caucasian Americans in those movies drool villainy. They are reviled as the lowest scum to scrape the bottom of a slimy rotten barrel. The whites in “The Birth of a Nation” are no less repugnant. They are selfish, obnoxious, and asinine cretins. Meantime, Parker depicts African-Americans as virtual saints without blemish so the film lacks the depth of complexity and credibility that marked “12 Years A Slave.” The specter of Nat Turner—in the form of the contemporary paranoia that afflicts some trigger-happy whites and prompts them to murder African-Americans–still seems to haunt our racially-divided nation. Despite its psychological shortcomings, “The Birth of a Nation” qualifies as a compelling movie that makes you want to launch your own insurrection against intolerance.