Courtesy Fox Searchlight

Sundance hit ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Dramatizes the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion

Like D.W. Griffith’s landmark film, this will be remembered for unintended reasons.

The provocation begins with the title, a kind of reverse cultural appropriation: Nate Parker’s Sundance smash takes its name from a famous film released 101 years ago. Not just any film, but a cinematic titan of its era: The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith’s mammoth Civil War film sold more tickets than any other movie, inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and caused enormous controversy as soon as it was released. The film is a synthesis of Griffith’s profound cinematic eloquence and some appallingly racist material, the latter having frequently dominated the conversation about Birth. Parker is reclaiming the title and adjusting film history. Fair enough, but if you’re going to reach that big, you’d better deliver.

The new film is based on the 1831 uprising led by Nat Turner, although much of the story here is fictional; Parker wrote the script, directed, and plays Turner. Born into slavery in Virginia, Turner is depicted as a young savant, able to read and gifted with a talent for preaching. As an adult, his owner is Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), a relatively benign but lazy man who has squandered his family’s cotton fortune. Turner passes through various stages of radicalization, fueled partly by slavery’s bloody cruelty and partly by his Christian-flavored visions of himself as a man of destiny.

The early sequences have the cut-rate look of a TV movie, with variable performances and an awkward touch. After a while, the limited budget produces some strong effects: the repetition of certain cramped locations—like the barn interior where Turner preaches, his sermons haloed by sunbeams slanting in between the timbers—builds a rhythm that owes as much to folk song as to movie storytelling. The many scenes set by candle- or firelight, conversation hushed to avoid the ears of suspicious white people, convey the terrible reality of how enslaved human beings must hide their authentic selves.

As an actor, Parker does a powerful turn, wisely throttling Turner’s fury until the explosion comes. Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead) is electric as Nat’s friend Hark, although his role feels shortened; Aja Naomi King is touching as Cherry, Nat’s wife. The standout in the cast is Roger Guenveur Smith (a veteran of Spike Lee’s movies) as the mostly silent, entirely discreet house slave, Isaiah. Smith gives us a lifetime of terror—of witnessing awful things and going along with them for the sake of survival—in precise facial expressions and pained body language. When he finally gets a big speech, in opposition to Turner’s surely suicidal plan, he shakes the walls with it.

Along with his spiritual calling, Nat Turner is especially stirred to insurgence by white men’s rape of enslaved women and by his own humiliation at preaching at Samuel Turner’s behest. Because of Nat’s talent in the pulpit, his owner tours him around to other plantations, where Nat is forced to read those Bible passages that endorse slavery. In the end, Parker struggles to connect these motivations to Turner’s ultimate historical strategy, which involved indiscriminately killing white people until slaves rebelled en masse. If this movie weren’t quite so old-school in its manipulations—if it had some of the mystery and shock of the Australian classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, for instance—Parker might have made a film of lasting power. What he gets instead is immediate blunt force. Perhaps that’s the movie 2016 needs.

The Birth of a Nation rocked Sundance in January and won two top awards there. Its profile since then has been overshadowed by revelations about Parker’s involvement in a rape case when he was in college in 1999. He was exonerated, but the story is ugly. The fact that Birth presents outrage about rape (specifically, men trying to protect women from rape) as a crucial motivating factor for key events is a strange part of the fabric that now surrounds an otherwise interesting project. Like D.W. Griffith’s landmark film, this Birth of a Nation will be remembered for unintended reasons. The Birth of a Nation, Rated R. Opens Fri., Oct. 7 in various theaters.

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in <em>Cold</em> <em>War</em>. Photo by Lukasz Bak
The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) star in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
Meandering Along ‘Beale Street’

Barry Jenkins follows up ‘Moonlight’ with the textured racial mood piece, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson square off in ‘Aquaman.’ Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Aquaman’ Can’t Figure Out Which Wave to Surf

The latest DC Comic movie struggles to find a balance between keeping a straight face and having fun.

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and… Continue reading

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.

Taron Egerton (Robin) and Jamie Foxx (John) take another crack at the classic in Robin Hood. Photo by Larry Horricks
The Arrows Miss Their Mark in ‘Robin Hood’

The legend’s latest rendition can’t overcome its modern smirky tone and bland lead actor.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen form the odd couple that carries Green Book. 
Courtesy Universal Pictures
Stellar Acting Makes ‘Green Book’ A Smooth Ride

Despite its cornball touches, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen shine as a 1960s jazz pianist and his hired muscle.

Image by Drew Struzan/Disney
Holiday Movie Streaming Picks

Get in the festive spirit at home with these beloved seasonal films.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in ‘Widows.’ Photo by Merrick Morton
Crime Doesn’t Pay Off in ‘Widows’

Steve McQueen’s feminist heist thriller stretches itself far too thin.

Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Buster Scruggs. Photo courtesy Netflix
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Is a Wagon Train of Dark Mischief

The Coen brothers’ new anthology seves as a glorious ode to Westerns’ dusty death.