I’m not supposed to say this, but I’m one of those people who is kind of worn out from all of the slave movies that we see so much of. As people of African descent, we’re more than that part of our history. A large chunk of me wants to see us on film the way I see us in reality. Like everyone else, we are and will always be a lot things. That’s why I wasn’t all that interested in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation at first. However, this isn’t the usual depiction of slavery that we’re used to getting.
What separates this movie from others like it is that it’s based on the rebellion led by Nat Turner. Played by Nate Parker, Turner had an interesting life as a slave. He was one of the few literate slaves out there, and was essentially to spread a spiritual message endorsed by slave masters who wanted complete cooperation from the people they viewed as being inferior. This was how it started for Turner, but traumatic events altered his thoughts and what his goals in life were to be.
While they don’t touch on every aspect of the life of Nat Turner, we’re able to get a feel of who he was and what made him into the man that he became. Along with Turner and the others like him, Nate Parker uses this time to make sure that his film humanizes the oppressed more than it attempts to victimize them. That’s a touch that’s missing in the average movie about this subject. In many instances, they want you to feel sorry for the seemingly helpless who are being accosted by slave masters and overseers. Here, there’s an honest attempt to turn these characters into actual people rather than perpetual victims. Granted, they were victims, but they were also fighters with a great deal of heart.
Because of this, it’s easy to see that there’s a great amount of care being put into each scene. It also illustrates the world of slavery where Nat Turner came from as compared to the world of slavery most others were forced to endure. This actually helps set up a great deal of the story here as it’s one of the things that’s crucial to the plot and the motivations of a man who came to lead one of the more impactful rebellions in American history.
Having it done this way allows for us to witness some of the harshest realities of slavery in a way that makes it seem fresh. As he’s learning more and more about these injustices, we’re seeing it all through his eyes and learning how it shaped and motivated him. In a way, that is a larger part of the story than slavery or the rebellion itself.
Predictably, there are some brutal scenes here, but it’s actually more tame than I expected. With the subject matter that it focuses on, they could have easily made the scenes of violence unbearable and difficult to handle. Instead, they take an approach that doesn’t churn the stomach as much as they could have. While still graphic in ways, it’s safe enough for people who aren’t willing to watch something that would make it hard to eat afterward.
Nate Parker believed in something that’s ultimately bigger than himself in many ways. Because of this, he gave his own time, money and effort while risking his reputation just to get this story out to the masses. That’s one of the primary reasons why I felt compelled to watch The Birth of a Nation. There’s a boldness here that someone like me can appreciate. I don’t know if this gamble will pay off for Parker, but The Birth of a Nation proves to be worth at least some of the risks that he chose to take on.
Director: Nate Parker
Mark Boone Jr.
Aja Naomi King
Roger Guenveur Smith
Penelope Ann Miller
Jackie Earle Haley
Film Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: October 7, 2016
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
- Score - 8/108/10