The Sundance Film Festival has earned its reputation as a place where dreams can come true, especially when it comes to passion projects that filmmakers have spent years trying to get made. That’s certainly the case with Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a film he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in.
When he first began developing this film about Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who led a slave rebellion against their white masters in 1831, Parker was virtually unknown as an actor. Seven years later, The Birth of a Nation was all the talk of Sundance and deservedly so. This isn’t because the picture is particularly groundbreaking as a film about the slavery-riddled South, but because it’s an impressive directorial debut by a talented actor.
After opening on Nat as a boy being praised by an African shaman, we watch young Nat playing with a white child named Samuel, the future master of the plantation, and being taken in by Samuel’s mother (Penelope Ann Miller), who teaches the boy to read—mainly to show him off during church sermons. Nat’s time in the main house doesn’t last long as he’s sent out to pick cotton. But decades later, he’s still preaching to the slaves and earning a reputation as someone who can keep the workers satisfied despite their mistreatment.
While the film shares the Birth of a Nation title with D.W. Griffith’s 100-year-old film about the KKK, that’s all it shares—almost as if Parker wanted to reclaim the said title for his own forefathers.
It’s also hard not to be immediately reminded of the 2013 Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, as you watch Parker’s film, which tries to remain just as truthful in its depiction of the brutality suffered by slaves. That said, Parker’s film is more in line with Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, being a straight-forward biopic told in a fairly linear way during its first hour or so.
Parker has proven himself to be an actor-worth-watching from his roles in Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters and others, although his performance as Nat Turner doesn’t feel as particularly revelatory as his earlier ones. Maybe the added pressures of directing/producing made it harder to focus as a thespian. It’s a fine performance but not always up to the material.
Parker casts wisely around him though with Armie Hammer giving a particularly strong performance as Nat’s relatively kind master Sam Turner (all grown up); it’s a very different role for the gallant Hammer than what he’s played in the past. Parker also finds a great discovery in Aja Naomi King as Nat’s wife Cherry, but The Birth of a Nation always feels more like it’s about the ensemble in the story than about any of the individual performances.
If you don’t know the story of Nat Turner then the last act turn might take you by surprise and even shock you. It certainly seems warranted that Nat would want to do something about the injustices he’s experienced first-hand, but it’s still jarring to see a man of God turning to violence in the way he does. That last act is what makes the film so powerful, especially when it builds to a courtyard face-off between Nat’s rebellion and the men led by Jackie Earle Haley, who have proven to be a nasty thorn in Nat’s side since childhood.
There’s quite a bit that sets Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation apart from other equally powerful films about slavery, but more than anything, it’s having a chance to watch the transition of a talented actor into a bonafide filmmaker with a clear vision that piques one’s curiosity of where Parker might go from here.