Birth of a Nation, the deservedly lauded biopic about Nat Turner, covers the preacher’s life from childhood through his 48-hour battle to free himself and the rest of the enslaved people.
The film, which opened nationwide Oct. 7, is different from many other movies based on America’s history, in that it focuses on a Black protagonist and there is no white savior inserted into the story.
Writer, director, and star Nate Parker does include the whipping, rape (off camera) and humiliation we expect from a movie set in our slave-holding past. However, he doesn’t point his camera at the perpetrators, or the brutality; instead, he shows the faces of those who suffer.
I applaud Parker’s choice because it amplifies the impacts of slavery, the emotional scars and twisted beliefs that still reverberate within the nation’s psyche today. You’ll think of black parents teaching their sons how to behave at a traffic stop or Donald Trump coming out in favor of stop and frisk when you witness the scenes where a slave catcher demands a black person produce a pass, or suffer whatever consequences they want to impose.
We first meet Nat Turner as a boy. At an African ceremony, his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) learns that the markings on Nat’s chest identify him as having a special purpose. Young Nat is prone to mysterious visions, which pop up several times during the film without explanation. Also young Nat can read, although he has no apparent teacher. Even the mistress of the plantation (Penelope Anne Miller) accepts Nat’s literacy as a gift, and decides to teach him from the only book suitable for his kind – the Bible.
It’s a new type of slavery film with a Black protagonist and no white savior.
As a young man, Nat becomes a preacher, using his gift of the gospel to give solace to himself and his fellow captives. The slaves on the plantation have a kind of community, they support and look out for each other as best they can. Like his friends, Nat even gets married and has a child. For a while he is happy.
Times get hard for plantation owners in Virginia, slaves are refusing to work, whites fear revolt. A local preacher convinces master Turner to rent out his black preacher to help calm the slaves at other plantations, many of whom have been battered, lost limbs, and stripped of their personhood.
As atrocities mount so do white suspicions, even at the Turner plantation. Nat gets a sign from God to free his people and takes action to see it through.
Parker gets strong performances from his cast. Parker himself is a standout. He imbues Nat with great emotional range and a quiet strength. Aja Naomi King, who viewers may recognize as Miss Pratt from How to Get Away with Murder, shows her acting range as Nat’s sweet, protective, and loving wife Cherry. Armie Hammer portrays Samuel Turner as a man conflicted, but willing to sell his soul for money and status.
The one misstep in an otherwise powerful movie was the character of Isaiah, a stereotypical house slave played by Roger Guenveur Smith. Smith is an accomplished actor of stage and screen, but his portrayal was almost comical. This one-dimensional character felt like perpetuation of the house slave and field slave a division, which seems irrelevant because your living arrangement doesn’t make you any more or less free.
Birth is not a perfect movie, but it is a very good one. It covers a piece of America’s history that isn’t talked about in school. I hope the film helps us talk about it in our homes and maybe the next generation will have a more complete picture of what it took to give birth to this nation.