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Nat Turner Envisioned The Birth Of A Nation
Nat Turner lived a life where he had advantages over other slaves. He may have worked the cotton fields of the Virginia plantation where he worked, but he was also afforded the opportunity to read the Bible. In time, he served as a preacher to his fellow slaves. Nate Parker stars in the story of Nat Turner entitled The Birth Of A Nation. As a boy around the start of the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), the wife of the plantation owner where Nat lived, discovered Nat could read, and encouraged him to learn the one book she permitted him to read - The Bible. While Elizabeth's husband ultimately decided to use him in the fields, he also allowed the now-adult Nat to conduct Sunday services for the slaves on his land.
Upon the husband's death, his brother Samuel (Armie Hammer) became the landowner. Like many in his part of the state, Samuel had difficulties making enough money on his plantation. A local preacher, Reverend Walthall (Mark Boone Jr.), offers Samuel the chance to make money from Nat's ability to preach. As he makes his Sunday rounds with Samuel, Nat starts to see how demeaning a treatment other slaves endure. This not only includes deplorable working and living conditions, but he learns that some slave owners violate the women forced to work the lands, and sees some of those actions for himself. As he thinks about his own wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and their daughter, Nat formulates a plan to rise up against Samuel, other owners, and men like Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), a man who uses his position as a slave tracker as a way to be a vigilante of sorts.
The Birth Of A Nation, based on the life of Turner, takes its title from the legendary and controversial 1915 epic from D. W. Griffith, but Parker's Birth is not either. As writer, director, and star, Parker sticks to conventional storytelling of a man who felt guided by God to do the things he did. Parker also shows Nat feeling a connection to his ancestry as he naviagtes his way through the life slavery forced him to live. It's good storytelling, but Parker's film lacks the emotional punch that the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave delivered. The Birth Of A Nation may have greatly impressed critics and audiences at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, but Parker uses broad strokes instead of intimate detail to tell Turner's tale.
Before Birth, I'd seen Parker in just three other acting roles: The Great Debaters, The Secret Life Of Bees, and Non-Stop. Here, he gets to deliver in a lead role, and he does a solid job. He knows opportunity for him will be limited, but he makes the most of them. He uses The Bible not only as a source to keep the slaves working, but also as a source to create a rebellion. He hides his anger from his owners, but Parker's Nat shows he's not willing to stand by complacently and turns to his fellow slaves and to God for physical and spiritual guidance. The others in the cast do good work as well, especially Miller as a somewhat sympathetic teacher and Roger Guenveur Smith as Isaiah, Samuel's house servant, who desperately tries to convince Nat not to take the actions he ultimately took.
The Birth Of A Nation tells the tale of one of the steps attempted to bring an end to indentured servitude in the American South. The struggles to be treated equally still remain a problem for Americans today, even though slavery was long ago abolished. I would never advocate that anyone follow the lead of Nat Turner, though the demand for equal rights and justice remain, and will continue for as long as any of us live. Nat Turner brought attention to a disturbing problem, and people today must continue to work to bridge the divides that started four centuries ago. Nobody can make up for the injustices of the past, but Americans need to continue to make the land one where there truly can be liberty and justice for all.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Birth Of A Nation three stars. An effort to break a terrible bond.