Film Review: “The Birth of a Nation”

birthoofnation-posterStarring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer and Jackie Earle Haley
Directed by: Nate Parker
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hrs
Fox Searchlight

Our Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Haunting.

When people have asked me my opinion of “The Birth of a Nation,” that is the word I’ve used most. The story, the images, the history…

A young boy is surrounded by family and friends. His chest bears what is described as “the mark.” He is told that he is destined to be a prophet and to lead. Born into slavery, the boy is taught to read by the wife of the owner of the cotton plantation he lives on. As “white” books are off limits, he devours the only book he is allowed to hold, the Bible.

Year later, the boy is now the man we know as Nat Turner (Parker). Soon he is leading his fellow slaves in worship. This occupation serves him, and his master’s (Hammer) well when he is hired by neighboring plantation owners to come and preach to their slaves to keep them in-line. Feeling uneasy, but wanting to help out the master who, for the most parts, has been good to him, he addresses the workers, quoting Bible verses that speak about serving your master and being obedient. However, after witnessing the horrific treatment of his brothers, Nat begins to get fiery in the pulpit. No longer does he preach about a God that demands obedience. Now he speaks of a God of love, who is also a God of wrath! A wrath that Nat Turner took upon himself to deliver.

Winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “The Birth of a Nation” is easily one of the best, and most important, films of the year. Like “12 Years a Slave,” it introduces audiences to a part of history that few choose to remember and many choose to forget. And the credit goes to its star, director and co-writer, Nate Parker who, surrounded by an amazing cast, tells the story of a true American hero whose exploits are often glossed over because of the way they were achieved.

Parker, resembling a young Denzel Washington, is flawless as Turner, often expressing his emotions, be they joy or sadness, more with his eyes then his voice. And, like Washington, he holds the screen with his presence. Hammer also excels as the owner who, when everything boils over, is just as hateful as all the others. As a slave hunter with a penchant for violence, Jackie Earle Haley is pure evil. The supporting cast, including Aja Naomi King as Turner’s wife and Penelope Anne Miller as the mistress of the plantation, also give amazing performances.

Technically the film is beautifully photographed and the musical score by Henry Jackman carries the film along and matches the visuals note for note. But the message here IS the message here. As the film nears its climax a young man exclaims that, “They’re killing black people for no other reason than being black.” Words from 1831 that continue to reverberate in 2016.

Haunting.

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