The Birth of a Nation Review (Keith’s Guest Review)
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is an enslaved Baptist preacher who lives on a Virginia plantation owned by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). With rumors of insurrection in the air, a cleric convinces Samuel that Nat should sermonize to other slaves, thereby quelling any notions of an uprising. As Nate witnesses the horrific treatment of his fellow man, he realizes that he can no longer just stand by and preach. On Aug. 21, 1831, Turner’s quest for justice and freedom leads to a violent and historic rebellion in Southampton County.
This is another big one, getting boatloads of attention with award buzz and some bad publicity. That’s been talked about to death elsewhere so let’s just focus on the film itself. Now there have been a few films covering racism recently with Free State of Jones and 12 Years a Salve being the first ones that come to mind. This is an interesting one as the film’s star Nate Parker has also written, produced, and directed the film which is something that does not happen often. Being based on a true story, of course I’ve never heard of Nat Turner but this is probably not the best option if you want to know more.
Nat Turner (Parker) has always been special and destined for greatness. At a young age, he learned how to read using the bible which then inspired him to become a preacher, living on a plantation owned by Samuel Turner (Hammer). Sensing unrest amongst the local slave community, Reverend Zalthall (Mark Boone Junior) persuades Samuel that Nat should preach to the other slaves in order to calm things down. Seeing how his fellow slaves are treated, he decides that enough is enough and organizes a revolt within Southampton County.
Most of the story (or at least 2/3) served as a leadup to this revolt. First there was the relationship between Nat and Samuel who were seemingly close as he was close to the Turner family and Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) ever since they were children. This continued when they became adults where Samuel often stood up for Nat but that only went so far since he was still a slave after all. Things started to change and they started to drift apart once we learned that Samuel was coming close to losing his farm. This is what sets the plot in motion when Samuel agrees to have Nat preach to the slaves on other plantations and see what is happening to them.
The problem with this was that it was difficult to get emotionally invested in the film as things never seemed that bad (but we already kind of knew the truth anyway). Samuel and the Turners never lashed out at Nat or their slaves. It was only when Samuel was getting more desperate that he started to not follow his own principles and let more happen. Samuel may have seemed like a nice guy but he is still okay with owning slaves and is willing to use them as he saw fit. This all felt too sudden and the lack of any real buildup made the eventual climax less impactful. This may be due to the inexperience involved but the film’s pacing affected the plot’s flow.
The film also gave Nat a love interest in the form of another slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King). This was fine but the film didn’t spend enough time on them. This would have added more credibility to their relationship and allowed them to develop some chemistry which was lacking. For the longest time, Nat just watched how the other slaves were being treated and dealt with this inner conflict within him but it was really the moment where she got attacked by a group of slave catchers, led by a man named Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), that set things in motion.
There were other slaves around but they almost didn’t matter as the film focused heavily on Nat. Sure, other things were happening because again, it was hard to get emotionally invested in any of the other slave characters as they were more of a means to an end. This wasn’t so bad, however, as Nat was flawed but still a likable character who was compelling enough to watch. Just seeing the slaves rally around religion and his sermons was fun to watch as these moments were well done.
The way in which the film tackles religion was interesting in that it can be interpreted either way. The scenes where they came together were exciting but there wasn’t nearly enough of them. The final battle was also exciting but ended way too quickly. Like in any biopic, there’s always the question of historical accuracy. The film’s historical accuracy will probably come into question (if it hasn’t already). It’s easy to get the impression that film may have cherry-picked aspects and moments just to make Turner out as a better person. It did kind of work though.
The acting here was great with Parker being the obvious standout. This did not come as much of a surprise considering all the creative freedom he had. He was great as Turner as he carries the film with his energy and likability in a deeply powerful and emotional performance. The closest was Hammer as Samuel Turner. Seeing him break down under the pressure from the South was fascinating to watch. Even with that, the film did not offer much character development as the characters never hit any highs or lows.
Overall, this was still a tremendous journey, with a flawed story, never striking an emotional chord despite Parker’s powerful performance as Turner.