Arts, Features

REVIEW: “The Birth of a Nation” is a new take on a pivotal historical event

Colman Domingo, Nate Parker and Chike Okonkwo star in “The Birth of a Nation,” a film documenting Nat Turner and his slave rebellion. PHOTO COURTESY FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
Colman Domingo, Nate Parker and Chike Okonkwo star in “The Birth of a Nation,” a film documenting Nat Turner and his slave rebellion. PHOTO COURTESY FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

When D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” opened in Boston in 1915, it was greeted by extensive rioting. The film, adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel “The Clansmen: An Historical [sic] Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” is widely credited as inspiring the “second era” of the KKK.

Nate Parker’s 2016 film “The Birth of a Nation,” in theaters Friday, recounts the life of Nat Turner, a slave living in Southampton County, Virginia, at the beginning of the 19th century. The film, which Parker co-wrote, co-directed, produced and stars in, focuses on Turner’s growth into a powerful preacher and the one-day rebellion that he led in 1831 that resulted in the deaths of at least 55 white people.

Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” beautifully examines the complex conflicts the characters deal with throughout the movie. One big issue that causes a rift between Nat (Parker) and his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), is that both men are very religious, but their interpretations of the Bible clash.

One scene that illustrates this struggle well is when Nat and a white preacher, Reverend Zalthall (Mark Boone Jr.), are shouting Bible quotes at each other. Nat is trying to prove that he should continue to preach to slaves on neighboring plantations even though Samuel does not want him to, while the Reverend is arguing that he should obey his master. The scene ends with Samuel hitting Nat with his gun and later whipping him, a brutal sequence.

Later in the movie, during the rebellion, Parker and the rest of the cast showcase their fantastic acting skills to emphasize Nat’s internal struggle. Turner has gathered a fairly large group of slaves and killed many of their owners, and he goes to secretly visit his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King). During the visit, Cherry says, “The killing won’t stop until they get you.” Nat did not realize that during his killing spree, white landowners were having a killing spree of their own — they would eventually kill about 200 free and enslaved black people as revenge for Nat Turner’s rebellion.

Throughout the movie, Nat has visions that lead him to pursue God and continue preaching. The way the visions are portrayed in the movie create an eerily beautiful feeling and allow the viewer inside Nat’s complicated brain. One premonition Nat sees multiple times is an angel. This angel comes clearly into his view in the very last scene while he is being hanged. That last vision, in addition to his last words — “I’m ready” — tie the whole movie together and solidify his willingness to be a martyr for the cause.

The music also adds authenticity to “The Birth of a Nation.” Throughout the film, traditional African beats and voices are used during the church and field scenes and scenes, but one of the most powerful moments came near the end, in the midst of the rebellion. A haunting rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” originally released in 1939 to protest the widespread lynching of black people, plays in the background while the camera pans around a series of hanged African-Americans in a forest.

In “The Birth of a Nation,” Parker does not shy away from portraying the brutalities that came with slavery. One of the main moments of transition in the film comes when Nat, who has lived under better conditions than most slaves, goes to other plantations and sees how terrible the lives of other slaves can be. In one particularly gory scene, a slave-owner mutilates the face of one of his slaves who refuses to eat.

Later, when Nat stabs Samuel in his sleep, the only light in the scene shining through a stained glass window featuring a cross. This scene, which is a beautifully shot juxtaposition, is one of the most important and impactful in the movie. “The Birth of a Nation” fantastically compares the brutalities of slave life and how Nat Turner helped ignite the birth of the nation we know today.

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