The Birth of a Nation has been so titled as a deliberately ironic nod to the notoriously racist (though cinematically groundbreaking) 1915 DW Griffith silent film of the same name. Based on the true story of Nat Turner, a slave preacher who led an uprising in the mid-nineteenth century Deep South, this is an absorbing, well-acted drama that strives to be as fiercely essential as 12 Years a Slave. Frankly it isn’t, but it is still powerful and definitely worth a watch.
Nate Parker writes, directs and plays the lead, doing a fine job all-round. His central performance in particular convincingly moves from turn-the-other-cheek preaching (whereby he reluctantly encourages slaves on other plantations to submit to their masters), to violent revolutionary figurehead, as the fire of righteous anger is gradually kindled within him. It is particularly interesting that the catalyst for Nat’s ultimate insurgency is not the brutal rape of his wife, or the appalling treatment he witnesses of slaves on other plantations, but the furore caused when his own comparatively lenient master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) – who still isn’t above administering a good lashing or pimping out his female slaves – takes a dim view of Nat baptising a white man.
How historically accurate any of this is, I have no idea. Nor do I particularly care, as one should never let inconvenient truths get in the way of a good film. However, in spite of my cavalier attitude to factual veracity, I can’t help but feel that as a writer/director Parker is striving too hard to emulate Braveheart. As a result, some of the film feels disjointed and episodic, even though it does a relatively good job of building the appropriate outrage in the viewer. Supporting performances are good, especially from Aja Naomi King, who plays Nat’s wife Cherry, and it’s always good to see Penelope Ann Miller in anything. The use of beautiful locations (courtesy of cinematographer Elliot Davis) is very effective, and one does get a sense throughout that this is an important story that needs to be told.
It is worth adding warnings for strong bloody violence, whippings, torture and so on (one scene involving force-feeding is exceptionally gruesome), but all of it is justified by the context, as it was in 12 Years a Slave. However, as mentioned earlier, there is no question which is the superior film.
What The Birth of a Nation does have very much in it’s favour, from a spiritual perspective, is a thought-provoking look at how long Christians should turn the other cheek, even in the face of something as hideously immoral as slavery. Was Nat Turner justified in taking vengeance into his own hands? Were his actions futile or did they serve a greater purpose? The film doesn’t duck these difficult questions, and no doubt Christians who see this will leave the cinema with many different perspectives on the matter.