I’m incredibly conflicted about this film. Writer/director/actor Nate Parker has created a searing, powerful Civil War drama, revolving around an 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. Set on cotton plantations in Southampton County, Virginia, it reveals that, as a child, Nat (Tony Espinosa) was recognized by an African tribal shaman as a potential prophet/leader. And he’s encouraged to read the Bible by his master’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller). Read on…
Years later, Nat (Nate Parker) becomes a Baptist preacher. Amid rumors of insurrection, he’s rented out by his alcoholic owner (Armie Hammer), travelling to neighboring plantations to spread his gospel of subservience and peace.
That’s before brutal acts of traumatic violence turn soulful Nat into a mythic crusader, experiencing intense religious visions and viewing a solar eclipse as a sign from God to lead a ferociously bloody uprising that claimed 60 white families and led to the slaughter of 200 blacks in retaliation.
Filled with heavy-handed symbolism, it’s, nevertheless, thoughtful and perceptive. But how do you separate the artist from his work?
Nate Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of raping an unconscious 18 year-old woman at Penn State. At their 2001 trial, Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty but appealed the verdict; a second trial was thrown out when the victim refused to testify again. She committed suicide in 2012.
Taking top honors at Sundance, selling for $17.5 million (the biggest in the festival’s history), “Birth” appeared to be the kind of African/American film about racism, faith and injustice that would appeal to Academy voters determined to acknowledge diversity. But will it now? It’s a moral dilemma.
FYI: Parker’s brutal portrayal of slavery depicts the rape of two women (Aja Naomi King & Gabrielle Union). And the title is the same as D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 silent film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Birth of a Nation” is an edgy, effective 8, yet tainted by the filmmakers’ shadow of shame.