There’s no doubt that The Birth of a Nation is a hard watch. Nate Parker directs and stars as historical figure Nat Turner, a preacher and slave rebellion leader, beginning the film with a slow but well-paced examination of the lives of slaves in the Deep South. The film is unflinching in its use of violence from the outset, and this only gets worse when Nat leaves his master’s estate to preach to other slaves around the county, and realises that conditions for others are much worse, and that his faith is being used to subdue rather than liberate his own people.
The tension that visibly grows inside Nat, and between himself and his master, as he is paraded around and forced to preach to slaves around the county in an attempt to “keep them obedient”, is excellent. This also increases tensions in the strength of his own faith, and keeps us on our toes as he gets more bold and anti-authoritarian with his speeches, at the risk of putting himself and his family under scrutiny from the white masters.
Where the film loses speed, however, is where it should be picking up as it heads towards the final act. The reenactment of Nat Turner’s rebellion itself is disappointingly anticlimactic in its direction, thankfully saved by the chilling following scenes showing the consequences of the rebellion, set to Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit”, a song which perfectly sums up the tone of the final scenes.
The Birth of a Nation is an important story, and has some fantastic scenes that highlight the brutality of slavery and refuse to shy away from a period of time still remarkably fresh in America’s young history. However, the climax squanders the work that the first half does to make the film really special.
CAST: Nate Parker, Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley
DIRECTOR: Nate Parker
WRITERS: Nate Parker (story and screenplay), Jean McGianni Celestin (story)
SYNOPSIS: The Birth of a Nation is based on the true story of Nat Turner, an African-American slave who led a rebellion in 1831, killing 65 white people across Southampton County in Virginia.