Past the Popcorn: The Birth of a Nation Deserves All the Oscar-Bait Hype

by Jeff Walls

Having already been much talked about on the film festival circuit and after taking home both the grand jury prize and the audience award at Sundance, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation seems primed for an Oscar run.  In the same vein as Oscar winners like Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave, its subject matter is often difficult to watch, but it is an important story that needs to be told and its director has done a terrific job of telling it.

That director is Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation is his first feature, making for one heck of a debut.  Parker wrote and produced the movie, as well, while also spending nearly the entire film in front of the camera, starring as real-life slave Nat Turner.

birth-of-a-nation-insetTurner is an educated slave and preacher whose owner finds himself strapped for cash and in danger of losing his plantation.  To make some extra cash, he loans out Turner to other slave owners where he is expected to deliver a sermon promoting the values of obedience and servitude.  While traveling from plantation to plantation, Turner witnesses the atrocities faced by his fellow slaves.  The horrors hit close to home, too, when his wife is beaten and raped by white slavers.  He rebels, slowly at first, before finally leading a full-on rebellion.

The relationship between Nat and his owner Samuel, played by Armie Hammer, is perhaps the most interesting in the film.  They were playmates as young boys and while they grow to become slave and master, there is still a certain level of mutual respect between the two.  This slowly fades as the movie progresses as Nat observes Samuel witness these horrible acts that are performed against other slaves, but do nothing about it except dive into the bottom of a bottle.  It continues to worsen as Samuel’s financial struggles force him to appease the other slave owners by allowing them to commit horrible acts against his own slaves.  The relationship eventually crumbles to the point of no return and it is at this point when Nat decides he needs to take action.

Whether by accident or intent, the movie is structured very much like 1995’s Oscar-winning epic Braveheart, so much so that in the end, I was half expecting Nat Turner to belt out a shout for freedom.  The comparisons between the movies make sense.  Both movies are about a rebellion in pursuit of freedom.  And as historical epics go, there are few better movies to emulate than Braveheart (factual inaccuracies aside).

The Birth of a Nation does not shy away from its harrowing subject matter.  There are some scenes of slave brutality that will be a challenge for anyone to watch, but ultimately the movie is a story of hope, something that is very clear in its final image.  Despite how challenging some of the scenes in the movie can be to watch, they are always incredibly photographed.  The cinematography in this film is stunning, filled from wall to wall with poetic and religious imagery.  There is one specific shot that starts with a close-up of a butterfly that will break your heart.

Religion plays a major role in the film.  Nat is a preacher who has great faith and believes that leading the rebellion is a mission given to him by God.  One compelling scene has him explaining to his fellow slaves the words of the Bible and that for every verse the slave owners use to justify enslaving them, there is another condemning them for it.  This certainly rings true not only in the slave culture of America in the 19th Century, but for today as well.  Religion is often used to justify horrifying acts.  Perhaps that is due to individuals focusing on the verses that serve their value system while ignoring the overall message.

The Birth of a Nation is a compelling historical drama that is incredibly well made.  It is a tour de force accomplishment for Nate Parker, who deserves to earn Oscar nominations for his directing, writing, and acting.  The movie itself should also find itself competing for the top prize.  It is well worth seeing, but be prepared for a sobering dose of what reality was for slaves in the early 1800s.

The Birth of a Nation is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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