In the evolution of the American film industry few films have ventured into the subject of slavery. Some have misleadingly romanticized the era (Gone With the Wind). Some have made fun of it and belittled its tragic consequences (Django Unchained). Some have eloquently captured the suffering (12 Years a Slave). Some have revealed rebellions from a White man’s perspective (Free State of Jones). None have captured the spirit and emotion of the time, the courage and bravery of resistance and the calculated planning and execution of a rebellion from the viewpoint of African American culture. Until now.Southampton County, Va., is filled with cotton plantations. A young slave boy named Nat (Tony Espinosa) and his family work on a farm run by the Turner family. Nat is thought to be a chosen child by friends and family: “This boy has the holy markings of our ancestors.” He is friendly with the slave owner’s son Samuel (Griffin Freeman). That boy’s mom Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) notices that Nat has a knack for words and she helps him learn how to read, using the Bible as a learning tool.
Years later, Nat (Nate Parker) is a young Reverend. His stature among the slaves is high. The Turner family seems to not be too apprehensive about their slave who seems to be intelligent and a leader. Samuel (Armie Hammer), now a young man too, is in charge of a farm that is failing to make money. As talk of rebellious slaves sweeps through the county, Samuel gets Nat to become a traveling pastor who “tames” the nerves of slaves on other plantations, for a fee that is paid to the Turner Family.
Traveling around to other farms gives Nat a general of sense of other slaves’ wretched conditions. Several intensely brutal incidences, involving him, friends and a vicious assault on his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) by white men, bring things to a head. The time to act has come. Nat: “We’ll destroy them all.” How will it be done? Who will join him? How will this insurrection end?
Throughout the film, the script by Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin establishes and maintains a spiritual destiny that never wanes. There are moments that the Nat Turner they have created has Christ-like, martyr-like attributes. How much of this is based on fact or is manufactured to produce a character that audiences will root for is up for debate. One thing for sure is that the real Nat Turner was a courageous man who gave his life for freedom, and the one on-screen takes over that mantle very well.
For a first-time filmmaker, Parker makes no huge gaffes. He finds and keeps a tone, pulls Oscar-worthy performances from his cast and sets everything in motion in a thoroughly engaging manner that is sustained for 118 minutes. With the skill of directors with ten times his experience, he blends drama, psychodrama, romance, spirituality and action into a relentless, uncompromising classic.
By most epics’ standards, this is concise storytelling (editor Steven Rosenblum) that is perfectly set in the 19th century (Jim Ferrell, set decorator; Geoffrey Kirkland, production designer). The characters wear clothes that looked lived in (Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, costume designer) and when they are injured their cuts and bruises look scarily real (Randi Owens Arroyo, makeup artist). And every element is captured by a very perceptive lens (Elliot Davis, cinematographer).
It is a miracle that Parker can write the script, produce the movie, direct the proceedings and still turn in what has to be one of the most difficult and emotionally complex performances of the year. His character evolves from jovial, young man, to preacher with guilt, to loving protective husband and father, to angry rebel seamlessly. Every feeling he exhibits seems authentic.
Parker’s portrayal peaks in a pivotal scene when Cherry lies on a bed of white sheets, bludgeoned, and he assures her that everything will be all right, even though life couldn’t be worse. The two actors cry and hold each other in a way that creates an indelible moment. Before, and more now, the audience is waiting and ready for Turner to take matters into his own hands. And so is Cherry: “If the Lord has called you to fight, you fight for me. You fight for all of us.”
Ensemble acting is rarely this flawless. Usually one actor overdoes it, or one is not up to snuff. Not here. Hammer as the friendly, then cold, Samuel makes you never question his motivation. Colman Domingo as Nat’s cohort gives depth to his role in ways that deserve acclaim. Aunjanue Ellis as the mother and Esther Scott as the grandmother, are stoic. Penelope Ann Miller, through the character of Elizabeth Turner, aptly conveys a sense of nurturing, confusion, shock and fear. Villains come and villains go, but Jackie Earle Haley’s interpretation of Raymond Cobb, a “paddy roller,” a White man who monitored and enforced discipline upon Black slaves, is one of the most vile you will ever see.
A rebellion and a subsequent massacre happened in the backwoods of Southampton County, Va. on August 21, 1831. Those events foreshadowed the Civil War. And now millions have the chance to learn a part of Black history that few know.
It is so fitting that the brilliant Nate Parker has called his great opus “The Birth of a Nation.” If there is justice in this world and the afterlife, D.W. Griffith, the racist director of the 1915 propaganda film of the same title, is turning over in his grave.
This is a story that had to be told. And must be retold again and again.
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at DwightBrownInk.com.