It’s 1809 and Nat Turner, a literate slave who preaches to the other slaves on the plantation, stages an uprising. He witnesses the true horrors of the pre Civil War American Slave system. Before the uprising he is taken around to different plantations to preach the word of God to the slaves as the slave owners believe that will stall any uprising, and while it seems to work for the slaves, in Nat is stirs his own feelings of uprising.
The Slave films that have come around over the last few years have been either amazing or terrible, and this is one that is right in the middle. In Ireland we have our own history with oppression, which I’m not going into as this review would be about 90 pages long and it’s a little too late in the night for me to get into that. This is however the 100th year since our own uprising against our horrid oppressors. But given the current state of our world I think the importance of seeing this film went from a maybe to a must see.
What strikes you first is the feeling of Braveheart about the whole film, the mirror to the mid 90’s Mel Gibson Oscar winner couldn’t be clearer, and you can’t help but feel that way about it. Nat Turner was able to read, which was dangerous for the owners and the whites in the area where he lived, when his Owner dies and the plantation is turned over to his Son Nat becomes a field hand. He grows to be a preacher to his fellow slaves. Nate Parker who wrote, directs, and Stars as Nat Turner performs admirably as Nat, but I feel as though the film suffers from him wearing so many hats during the production of the film. Jackie Earl Haley plays the slave catcher and I have to say is just as scary as ever, even when this guy plays a good guy like he did in Human Target he’s scary, and here given the nature of his character it’s doubling down on the fear. Armie Hammer plays the owner of Nat, and tries his best with this nothing role, but then it seems over the last year and a half nothing roles have been his moneymaker. Penelope Ann Miller plays Hammer’s mother and it was nice to see her in a film again but there could have been more given to us from this character.
My biggest problem with this film is that at 2 hours long it’s too short to tell the story in completion. I’ve said this a few times this year about a couple of films that needed to be turned into the Mini Series style of storytelling. As with The Free State of Jones, Birth of a Nation needed to be longer, to fully explore the character of Nat, and those around him. The shocking violence that is shown over the film brings to light the true terror that these African American’s lived in, the horrors of how White America treated them. One scene where a Owner takes a hammer and knocks out the teeth of a Slave who refused to eat made me look away. I’ve seen thousands of horror films over my life and never looked away but this scene made me turn my head and I wasn’t alone in that as the reviewer that was sitting next to me did the same thing.
Birth of a Nation is compulsive viewing but there are massive problems with the film. One of them is the over comparison between Nat and Jesus. Nate Parker had a clear vision of what he wanted to do and it’s admirable. I just wanted to see more depth to the characters, and although the rebellion only lasted 48 hours we could have spent more time there. There is a lot of good character building at the start. The problem of the Braveheart similarities kept creeping into my mind through the whole film and while you could do worse than copy that film, there were different ways to tell this story that would have shown more originality. Birth of a Nation is a reminder to us all on how we treat people around us. Compulsive but flawed.