Over 100 years in the making, The Birth of a Nation is writer/director Nate Parker’s in-your-face rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 film of the same name; the historic, groundbreaking silent movie that many see as being partially responsible for stifling the liberation of black Americans – with effects that are still being endured today.
Not to make light of the shaky state of current race relations, but I keep going back to a line from singer/songwriter Steve Earle’s song, 21st Century Blues: “Here I am in the 21st century, I have to say it ain’t as cool as I hoped it would be.” In other words, what the hell was – and is – wrong with us when it comes to treating people equally, and with dignity and respect?
Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is powerful, unsettling, and one of the most hard-to-watch films I’ve ever seen. For an aging white dude, it’s not easy to sit there for two hours and be shamed by your forefathers’ actions; but the necessity of seeing this film is in direct proportion to how much shade it throws your way. Although, unfortunately, I’m certain there are those who will never be reached and who will walk away feeling justified in their racist ways, and that’s scary.
This Birth of a Nation is a dramatization of the 1831 uprising of slaves against their Southern captors in Southampton, Va., led by the learned black preacher, Nat Turner. The rebellion led to the deaths of 60 slave owners and the subsequent execution of 200 slaves, many of whom had nothing to do with the insurrection.
Nate Parker not only wrote, directed and produced this film (his first-feature film effort), he also delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in the demanding role of Nat Turner. The acting here, across the board, is superb, especially Aja Naomi King as Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry; Roger Guenveur Smith as the Turner family’s manservant; and Jackie Earle Haley as an ominous and sinister slave hunter.
The soundtrack and the cinematography of this film are both awesomely on point, with their beauty being in stark contrast to the ugliness of the movie’s historical narrative. From a production standpoint the only issues I have are one or two easily overlooked but awkward edit missteps.
The Birth of a Nation is not for the faint of heart. It’s a film that absolutely should be seen — but, in addition to its uncomfortable subject matter, it is rife with violence, blood and gore. Birth is always painful and that fact is certainly prevalent in this film.
This is a bold, unflinching look at America’s racist past and the sins our nation’s white grandfathers committed during the creation of our country. It’s not pretty, and you will likely leave the theater feeling numb, but until we can acknowledge these atrocities and talk about them, our nation will never truly heal. This is an important movie that you need to see. Grade: 9/10
Photos © 2016 Fox Searchlight Pictures
A note on the Nate Parker controversy
For those concerned over The Birth of Nation director’s controversies in the news recently: Without defending or chastising the man, please remember that movies are a collaborative art form and there are hundreds of artists and technicians involved in the making of this very important film. They deserve to have their work seen.