The Birth of a Nation
Set against the antebellum South (the time occurring before the Civil War), “The Birth of a Nation” follows Nat Turner, an enslaved Baptist preacher who lives on a Virginia plantation. Nat is both rare in being a literate slave and preacher, as well favorably thought of (as far as being a being a slave goes) by his owner Samuel Turner.
With rumors of mass slave insurrection beginning to swirl in the air, a White cleric convinces financially strapped Samuel to start using Nat to sermonize to other local slaves, thereby hopefully quelling any notions of an uprising. Samuel seeing the good in the idea accepts various locals offer to use Nat's preaching prowess to subdue the slave unruliness. But Nat’s time away from his own plantation he begins to witness the countless atrocities directed both against himself as well as his fellow slaves. These acts of brutality help’s Nat sees the religious good in the idea of all out retribution and begins to surreptitiously orchestrate the un-thought for that time an all-out uprising against White slave owners and their families in the hopes of leading his people to freedom. So, on the historic date of Aug. 21, 1831, Nat Turner's rebellion took whole as Nat began his personal quest for justice and freedom which led to the historic violent rebellion in Southampton County Virginia.
“TBOAN” has its flaws. One, in the first hour is the pacing of the films editing which was a bit too “snapshot” quick from scene to scene. There could have been a tad more development of the back story of the white “escaped slave patrols”. Acting almost ghostly in their appearance in the film they come across merely as unauthentic and very underdeveloped characterizations of men who seemed more like primordially born barbaric savage soulless men who’s jobs were to roamed the earth to simply engage in perpetual violence who also just happened to be white. There was also early a slightly clunky story line involving Nat’s transition from a child and having an unusual gift “not to be wasted” because he knew his letters into a decent man of both great Christian faith and an abiding love for his family and his fellow slaves. Overall these are minor effects on the film and ultimately just hiccups along this film’s 2 hour journey.
What does endure from this film, especially in the second hour of Nat’s’ story is his slow and heartfelt evolution from being an enslaved man to a full man who not unlike any other human walking the earth at that time simply wanted to matter out of life of being more than a permanently shackled and brutalized people who could be instantly killed (and often were) "for no reason but being black".
Actor Nate Parker who plays Nat Turner, also produced, wrote and directed “TBOAN” delivers a fine and promising debut effort here. And while there are long stretches where certain scenes were very conventional and a bit uneven in its execution losing the film’s momentum of what we know is to come in the way of the rebellion, overall the story delivers exceptionally well some scenes of great emotional depth, humanity and punches to the gut. It also delivers moments of raw savagery that even I could not imagine, one in particular involving two slaves who refused to eat literally made me wince at the screen. This and other moments in his film depicting American slavery turned my stomach into an emotional and intellectual ball of anguish that I once again had to question how any living soul could ever feel morally justified by either man’s law and religious Christianity doctrine to do such unthinkable things to other humans.
In the end “TBOAN” tries to delivers two basic themes. One, is the historical depiction of Nat Turner’s rebellion of a man literally willing to be tortured and punished that eventually would cost him his life. And the other being the surreptitious power of religion as nothing more than propaganda tool for both the slave owner to be “master over other humans” and the other being a tool to morally propagandized the minds of slaves to be made to feel this was the “Lord’s will” to be sold into lifelong bondage. But in the end the larger and more powerful point revealed in this film was how the institution of slavery was more than stories of shackles, whips, beatings, cotton fields and lynching. It was singularly a system designed to perpetually dehumanize a group of men, women, children and their families from their birth to their graves in all things that matter with the except of the very breath they took.
In the end of the film there is a footnote that comes across the screen that states Nat was slowly hanged until he choked to death, then cut down and dismembered and had his body parts used for axle grease….......Dehumanizing.
3 – 3/4 Stars