Movie Review: “The Birth of a Nation”

Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Jacke Earle Haley
Nate Parker

“The Birth of a Nation” is sometimes an oddly inconsistent film, but it’s a movie that’s never without passion. Nat Turner’s story, as depicted by actor, writer, producer and first-time director Nate Parker, is often a moving experience. Though the Turner biopic has garnered controversy recently, as past rape allegations against an acquitted Parker have come to light, there’s no denying that Parker’s directorial debut is an emotional piece of work.

When Nathaniel “Nat” Turner (Parker) was a boy, he had a vision of his ancestors marking him as a future leader. This isn’t the only vision that comes to Turner, who, from a young age, was taught to read and the word of God by Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), the wife to his present slave owner and mother to his future slave owner, Samuel (Armie Hammer). Turner grows into a strong, baptist preacher, speaking the word of God to the slaves on the plantation. When Samuel, who falsely believes he’s better than other slave owners because of his rare moments of empathy, has Turner start preaching on other plantations, he can no longer stand the horrors he sees. The slave owners hope a preacher discussing peace could help prevent insurrection, but their plan has the opposite effect, as Turner’s visions – including one of a crop filling up with blood – propel Turner to lead a violent rebellion.

This is a biopic about Nate Turner, but Parker doesn’t make “The Birth of a Nation” only about Turner and the uprising. At his finest moments as a director, Parker’s close-ups are impossible to shake. The camera rests right on faces that experience the daily horrors that Samuel gets queasy over. Parker and his DP Elliot Davis focus on these faces until they tell a story, and they do. Parker’s script is full of plenty speech giving and grand moments, but what’s unspoken is more effective. There’s a scene where a man that’s part of the rebellion smiles during a moment of battle, and what that smile says, as horrific as his situation, is that he’s standing and fighting. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking shot.

Parker doesn’t always show the same level of restraint as a filmmaker. Turner’s visions bridge on hokeyness in their execution. There’s a shot of an angel coming to Turner, in one of his many visions, that undermines one otherwise powerful sequence. These break the reality of the movie, making you question his choices instead of watching the story unfold. The actor’s hand as a filmmaker is often a little too heavy.

In “The Birth of a Nation,” the few glimpses of kindness come from Turner and his wife, Cherry (Aja Noami King). In two scenes, Parker doesn’t cut away from either his or King’s faces. These long takes provide an overwhelming intimacy during some emotionally-charged scenes. Turner and Cherry’s love is always palpable in the film. Parker is unsurprisingly an actor’s director, getting nothing but strong, mostly internalized performances from the actors, including Gabrielle Union and Chiké Okonkwo.

While Parker often leaves some horrors to the imagination, he doesn’t sugarcoat. The violence, both on screen and off, is gut-turning, as it should be. Visually, the director often contrasts the beauty and horror found in his film with some of his shot choices, like an unnerving shot involving a butterfly. “The Birth of a Nation” is occasionally rough around the edges, but it’s more often than not an impassioned telling of an important true story.