Sundance 2016: Nate Parker's 'The Birth of a Nation' is Sensational
by Alex Billington
January 26, 2016
It's time to rise up, to revolt, and to inspire real change. The Birth of a Nation is the feature directorial debut of actor Nate Parker, who has been working on this project for the last seven years. Parker writes, directs, produces and stars in this cinematic story of Nat Turner, a real-life slave in the 1800s who leads an uprising in Virginia. His legacy is meant to inspire "change agents", and for years his story was covered up to prevent this from happening. But now the story has been told (again after being published in books), exquisitely, and Parker's take on Nat Turner is a triumph. It's a sensational, riveting film that spends less time on the revolt itself, more on the man that realizes he is the one who must passionately lead an uprising.
Nate Parker stars as Nat Turner, a fairly humble, hard-working slave who is taught to read because one of his white masters gives him a copy of the bible. He eventually becomes a preacher and the spiritual leader of the slaves working on the plantation, establishing his position as an influencer. As a slave preacher, his master is paid to take him to other plantations to speak to the other slaves and encourage them to work and stay obedient to their masters. He sees so many disgusting things that progressively build up inside of him until one day, when he wife (another slave) is beaten, he realizes it's time to fight back. Waiting for a sign from God, he mobilizes as many men as he can and rises up against the whites. And they get their revenge.
While it's easy to compare this film to 12 Years a Slave, considering the brutally honest representation of slavery in both films, this one is unique in that it's a different story told in a different way by a first-time filmmaker. While it's not perfect, it is incredibly effective, and very powerful in every sense. I felt the same heavy sadness, and brutal emotions of guilt, that I had while watching 12 Years of Slave. Above all, this film exceeds perfectly in accomplishing what it sets out to do - to inspire other people to be "change agents", to inspire action not indifference, and to inspire the handful of people who will rise up and fight the powers that be. Even if it leads to death, it's the beginning of something bigger, that will play out over generations.
Parker is remarkable as Nat, and the rest of the cast is just as effective. Armie Hammer with a big bushy beard plays Nat's white master, and Jackie Earle Haley plays a nasty slave enforcer. Aunjanue Ellis is wonderful as Nat's wife, and brings some sensitivity to the film. The very moving score by Henry Jackman tops it off. My biggest criticisms are that the actual revolt flies by very quickly, and his fate at the end also comes too quick, without much story inbetween. Maybe this is just because they had an extremely limited budget, but it also could be because the film still makes an impact when it finally happens. It's tremendously powerful anyway. The whole film is an absolute triumph for Nate Parker and his entire cast & crew. Bravo.
Alex's Sundance 2016 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
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