'The Birth of a Nation' is heavy-handed and hero worshiping

'Nation' director Nate Parker also stars as Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion that took place in 1831 in Virginia. Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, and Penelope Ann Miller co-star.

Elliot Davis/Sundance Institute/AP
Armie Hammer (l.) and Nate Parker appear in a scene from the film ‘The Birth of a Nation.’

Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” takes its title from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic that was instrumental in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Unlike that film, which celebrated the Klan and portrayed blacks as shambling fools and despoilers of white womanhood, Parker’s movie, which focuses on the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion fomented by Nat Turner, is a celebration of black rage – a warning shot that is meant to reverberate in today’s fractious racial times.

The highly charged arena into which this film about America’s bloodiest slave revolt arrives gives it a cachet that, in artistic if not sociological terms, it does not really merit. 

Though intermittently powerful – a slow tracking shot of a forest grove of lynched black men is not easily forgotten – it is more often heavy-handed and hero worshiping. An actor making his directorial debut, Parker, who plays Turner and also co-wrote the script with Jean McGianni Celestin, has taken hold of an incendiary subject and coarsened its complexities into agitprop.

We first see Turner as a young boy growing up on a plantation in Virginia’s Southampton County where he is recognized as intellectually precocious by the owner’s kindly wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and taught to read the Bible. He is protected, for a while, from the worst of the plantation’s horrors by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), the owner’s son, with whom he grew up. An early sign of Samuel’s benevolence: At Turner’s urging, he agrees to buy Cherry (Aja Naomi King), an attractive slave who becomes Turner’s wife, at auction.

Turner gives stirring readings from the Bible to his fellow slaves in Southampton – they call him “The Prophet” – and is cynically utilized by the neighboring plantation owners as a tool in quelling rebellious stirrings among their slaves. 

He goes on the road and preaches to them the gospel of peace and, in doing so, confronts firsthand the murderous inhumanity that he is required to sanction. (In one of the film’s ghastliest and more powerful scenes, he watches as a slave on a hunger strike is force-fed by having his teeth knocked out.)

The radicalization of Turner from a preacher of peace to a firebrand of biblical-style retribution is the great subject of the movie – or at least it would be if Parker wasn’t so intent on deifying Turner (and wasn’t such a not-very-interesting actor). 

Looked at objectively, what is all too apparent from Turner’s story is how religion can be weaponized. He takes literally the biblical edict to “smite the oppressor.” In our fraught era, this is obviously a theme that resonates. 

But this is not the resonance that Parker is seeking. For him, Turner’s righteousness is a godsend, even though it resulted in the deaths of at least 50 white people and subsequently, in retaliation, about 200 black people, many of whom were not part of Turner’s ax-wielding brigade. Parker shows us just enough of the cruelties the slaves endured to make our blood boil – including two white-on-black rape scenes, one of them involving Cherry. He wants us to cheer Turner’s vengeance as a necessary horror. He wants us to know that black people, and not white people, own this piece of history.

If Parker made us feel revulsion for the slaves’ bloodlust – and by extension, our own – he would have fashioned a far more complicated experience. I was reminded of the great scene in Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” in which disguised Algerian guerrillas fighting the French occupiers prepare to blow up a restaurant knowing full well that innocents, including children, will die. It’s a scene that tears you apart. Pontecorvo was on the side of the Algerians in that conflict, but he also knew the price of humanity.

In “The Birth of a Nation,” Parker simplifies his deification of Turner by neglecting to show that Turner’s rebels also slaughtered 14 white women and 31 infants and children. 

He portrays Turner as willingly sacrificing himself to his white pursuers in order to spare his followers, when, in fact, Turner hid out for two months before being caught. His death in the film is given a Christlike aura not seen since Mel Gibson in “Braveheart,” another movie that went blooey sanctifying the blood of martyrs.

Parker had this to say in Vanity Fair magazine about William Styron’s 1967 novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which, despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, was vilified by many black intellectuals. He said the book offered “a narrative that is both sanitized and mythological.... This is especially dangerous when defining the legacy of a perceived hero.” Parker’s words could also apply to his own movie. Grade: C+ (Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.)

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