The Birth of a Nation (Sundance movie review)

birth of a nation

My entire working knowledge of Nat Turner’s 19th Century slave rebellion in Virginia is limited to the scant few paragraphs that covered the topic in my high school US history textbook. By contrast, I can pretty much tell you about every battle of the American Revolution, from Lexington and Concord all the way to Yorktown. Such is the way of things when we learn about history through the lens of the victors. But take away the comfortable veneer of red, white and blue patriotism and American exceptionalism that we are taught throughout our lives, and you begin to reveal all of the warts and imperfections that ultimately led to the creation of the United States as we know it today. Nate Parker’s deeply affecting film, The Birth of a Nation, does exactly that, stripping away the gloss of southern gentility and showing us the ugliness that pervaded America for the better part two centuries.

In telling the story of Nat Turner’s ill-fated slave rebellion of 1831, Parker (who wrote, directed, and starred in the film) paints an intimate portrait of the life of Nat Turner, from his childhood spent learning to read in his white master’s house, to his eventual position as preacher to slaves in plantations across the county. We revel in the quiet romance that blooms between him and fellow slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King). We even cheer when Nat’s owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) protects him from arrest at the hands of a white aristocrat early on in the film. But, as this is a historical retelling of a tragic story, we know that these moments of relative tranquility will not last.

Parker infuses Turner with a deep well of empathy and intelligence, hidden behind a stoic façade that must be maintained in order to protect himself from harm. His inner turmoil at the plight of his people is countered by his very human desire to survive in an unforgiving and unfair world. But over time, his continued exposure to the injustice and mistreatment of his fellow slaves sparks the passion that leads him down a path to revolution. His transformation from obedient slave to questioning preacher to charismatic uprising leader is fully earned through the course of the movie, as the film continually piles on atrocities to an already beleaguered people. The story is further enhanced by a visually arresting color palette that emphasizes dark blacks and grays, further highlighting the melancholy nature of the story.

The Birth of a Nation achieved the rare Sundance feat of winning both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for Best Film. But as emotionally impactful as it is, The Birth of a Nation is by no means an easy film to watch. The casual cruelty of white slave owners and overseers, as well as their utter disregard for their slaves is more than a little unnerving. In one particularly horrifying scene, a slave owner attempts to end a slave’s hunger strike by knocking out all of his front teeth with a hammer and chisel, all the while casually talking to Nat and Sam as if he were tending to his cattle. It’s not so much the brutality of the scene, as it is the flippant way at which this owner regards his slaves. The slave master is not hurting his slave because he enjoys it. He’s hurting his slave for the same reason he’d whip an unruly mule to get it to behave. There is no doubt that the South had its share of sadistic plantation owners. But the film is less an indictment on the isolated sadists that were surely a part of this slaveholding culture, and more a condemnation of the fact that black people of that era were not even treated as human beings. The oppression of slaves is not merely the act of a few heavy-handed masters, but rather the result of a barbaric system that is enabled by the inaction and indifference of an entire society.

Perhaps the most controversial notion that The Birth of a Nation dares to challenge is the fallacy that somehow, this is all ancient history. A dark chapter in the otherwise inexorable rise of the American Empire. But as we are so often reminded of on a daily basis, injustices based on race still exist today. And we can either choose to be passive observers to these injustices, or active participants against them. So view The Birth of a Nation as a history lesson on a subject that has generally gone unremembered if you so choose. But the true power of this film is the way in which it compels the audience to see that history can feel eerily close to modern times. And even if that idea isn’t necessarily comfortable, it is incredibly important.

Rating: 5/5 Atoms

NR 5 Atoms - A

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