Nate Parker who also starred in Beyond the Lights, Arbitrage, The Great Debaters, gives a great elemental performance as Nat Turner, a Virginia-born slave and Baptist preacher who led the 1831 slave rebellion, the bloodiest in U.S. history – that left 60 slave owners and family members slaughtered, mostly with axes and knives. In retaliation, 200 blacks were butchered.
The Violence hits like a gut punch in Birth of a Nation, a title Parker boldly reclaims from the 1915 silent screen Civil War epic in which director D.W. Griffith made the Ku Klux Klansmen look like heroes. As director, writer, producer and star, Parker’s Birth of a Nation is from a black perspective. A surge of righteous indignation courses through the film until all howling hell breaks loose. It’s a stupendous directing debut for an artist who is unflinching in his portrait of a black America pushed to the limit, with the outcome still in play.
The Birth of a Nation was shot in Georgia by camera wizard Elliot Davis who delivers a perfect blend of light and shadow that makes the past come palpably alive. Here, Parker shares the indulgences of many a first-time filmmaker who throws everything he can at the screen, and Nat’s religious visions, weird portents that his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) warns him against, are crudely visualized. Too many characters come and go without being fully developed; Henry Jackman’s score pushes when it needs to persuade.
“Strange Fruit,” a song written in the 1930’s to protest lynching of blacks, is sung by Nina Simone over an image of a black child hanging from a tree while a butterfly flutters near his chest. Sure, it’s too much. But, in a multiplex dominated by play-it-safe formula, it’s hard not to cheer Parker for his exultant belief that maybe, just maybe, a movie can change things. Besides, the overreaching pales next to what Parker has accomplished – a movie of potent provocation and surging humanity that ranks with the year’s best.