'The Birth of a Nation': Sundance Review

The Birth of a Nation Still 5 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A significant historical story makes it to the screen at a timely moment.

Nate Parker directs and stars in a biopic of Nat Turner, who led an early 19th century slave revolt.

Audaciously appropriating the title of the first blockbuster in Hollywood history a century later to turn its racial agenda upside down, director-writer-lead Nate Parker at last brings the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion to the screen in a potent if also somewhat pokey manner that will nonetheless hit home with many viewers. A labor of love pursued by Parker for seven years, the film vividly captures an assortment of slavery’s brutalities while also emphasizing the religious underpinnings of Turner’s justifications for his assaults on slaveholders. It’s a film very much in tune with the current state of heightened racial friction and one that will assuredly generate a great deal of media attention, and probably controversy — more for cultural and political, rather than artistic, reasons; creatively, it’s a far cry better than Stanley Kramer, but it’s no Son of Saul either. Still, the wide success of 12 Years a Slave, not to mention Django Unchained, augers well for the enterprisingly made film’s commercial future.

Parker refused acting jobs for the time it took to get this project launched, itself a good story. But the real story is Turner’s, a film of which has cried out to be made for decades and once almost was, by Norman Jewison, as an adaptation of William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning but subsequently disparaged 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Recognized as unusually bright at an early age, Nat Turner was taught to read and eventually groomed as a preacher for his fellow slaves in Southampton, Virginia. Even though he had to pick cotton, he didn’t have it as bad as many of his color did, but eventual exposure to the deepest horrors of the “peculiar institution” roused him to action, as did his unusual religious visions and revised interpretations of biblical passages.

In Parker’s script, the story for which he wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin, young Nat Turner (Parker) is largely shielded from the worst depredations by a master roughly his own age, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who’s trying to keep his father’s plantation going through difficult financial times. Nat can even exercise a degree of influence over Samuel, as when he suggests that Samuel buy the attractive teenage slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King) so he, Nat, can marry her. Outsiders sometimes fault Samuel for his relatively light hand, and Nat helps protect his fellow slaves from the worst of the worst.

With careful but arguably undue deliberation, the film offers a succession of vivid (if just briefly gory) set-piece depictions of white-on-black brutality, beginning with the dental torture of a slave on a nearby plantation who’s gone on a hunger strike. Cherry is attacked for no reason and, for his part, Nat is struck for merely preaching to slaves whose owners are more sadistically inclined than his own.

When Nat is discovered to have baptized a white man, it’s simply too much for the local bigots, who have him whipped something fierce. Slowly but decisively, Nat’s personal scales of justice begin to tilt the other way; a man who once dueled another over conflicting interpretations in the Gospel, Nat now takes the edict “smite the oppressor” to heart, using it as grounds to mount a slave insurrection that he intends will spread and deliver his people from tyranny.

The screenplay builds up to this moment with care and even a degree of preciousness. On top of that, the direction has its moments of eloquence and a handful of memorable images, particularly one near the end, a backward tracking shot revealing numerous bodies hanging from trees in a glade. All the same, the deliberate and unvaried sense of pacing becomes monotonous, just as turbulent dramatic undercurrents and a sense of building narrative momentum are increasingly missed.

By the same token, the staging of Nat Turner’s climactic nocturnal raid on white households, during which between 55 and 65 people were killed, mostly with axes and knives, could have been made more sweeping and affecting. Partly, perhaps, it might have been a matter of budget and shooting time, but a master action director could have made this into an amazing sustained sequence that ideally would have swept the viewer up in the horror of it all while provoking profoundly complex reactions due to its underpinnings.

As it is, Parker conveys the basics of what happened but without the more profound sense of what this incident represented morally, politically and historically. He also severely telescopes Turner’s final weeks on Earth, a period that could have been developed into an exceedingly dramatic chapter of its own.

Still, the film offers up more than enough in terms of intelligence, insight, historical research and religious nuance to not at all be considered a missed opportunity. Far more of the essentials made it into the film than not; its makers’ dedication and minute attention are constantly felt, and the subject matter is still rare enough onscreen as to be welcome and needed, as it will be the next time and the time after that.

As he must, Parker dominates the proceedings as Turner in a carefully judged and non-showy performance. He well suggests the man’s early prudence and tact in judging what he can effect and get away with and what he can’t, and also illuminates the man’s emotional and pastoral concern for others. His transformation into a man of action is perhaps less convincingly dramatized, even if his motives are clear.

Beginning with Hammer as a man who here and there suggests that, under different circumstances, he might not necessarily have felt compelled to enforce the prejudices and practices he inherited, the supporting cast is solid, albeit without the array of stellar supporting turns that graced 12 Years a Slave.

Cinematographer Elliot Davis’ shooting on Georgia locations is astutely judged and particularly notable in the night shooting. Henry Jackman’s score is unusually varied and draws upon multiple musical traditions and references to fine effect.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Bron Studios, Phantom Four, Mandalay Pictures, Tiny Giant Productions

Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union
Director: Nate Parker
Screenwriter: Nate Parker, story by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin

Producers: Nate Parker, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert, Preston L. Holmes
Executive producers: David S. Goyer, Michael Novogratz, Michael Finley, Tony Parker, Jason Cloth, Andy Pollack, Allan J. Stitt, Jane Oster, Barb Lee, Carl H. Linder III, Derrick Brooks, Jill and Ryan Ahrens, Armin Tehrany, Edward Zwick, Mark Moran
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Geoffrey Kirkland
Costume designer: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Editor: Steven Rosenblum
Music: Henry Jackman
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd
Sales: WME

Not rated, 119 minutes