The Birth of a Nation
2.5 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
Films set in early America have a way of pulling at our heartstrings. Our Founding Fathers declared that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet they were slaveowners who limited equality to their fellow white males. Some used passages from the Bible to justify prolonging the bondage of thousands of men, women, and children stolen from their homeland.
Nathaniel “Nat” Turner was born a slave in Virginia and during the film we see his curiosity for the world of reading open up a seed that would lead to his ascent as a leader and revolutionary. Inadvertently, the wife of his master may have been instrumental in Nat’s ability to summon strength and courage from the good book. She didn’t want him reading other books ‘only meant for white folks’, but one book was enough for Nat. Writer/Director/Actor Nate Parker has found a unique voice in this film, though his acting strength is counterweighted by moments that feel better fit for a made-for-TV movie than a serious piece of cinema.
There are moments of brutality that reflect the times of slavery, but shockingly, the owner of Nat’s family, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) is more kind hearted than his neighbors, protecting Nat from some of the nastier members of the community.
Well into the story, Nat’s owner turns suddenly from a man with higher moral standards than his fellow slave owners into a belligerent drunk that doesn’t hesitate to let one of his slaves be raped by a neighbor. This is a major flaw in the film, because even though we see the financial threads of his plantation unraveling, he becomes an almost unrecognizable villain overnight. His fall, while necessary to allow the audience to accept his upcoming death at the hands of Nat, takes a shortcut that cannot be ignored.
The slave revolt, while only lasting two days, became the deadliest slave uprising in the United States. For decades Turner was remembered as a radical killer, but placed in the greater context of history, fighting for freedom with violence has happened in many revolutions across the world.