55 Years Into A New Nation
Birth Of A Nation
Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, and Tony Espinosa (young Nat)
Director: Nate Parker
Scriptwriters: Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin
Cinematographer: Elliot Davis
Composer: Henry Jackman
Mandalay/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rating: R for violence, issues of slavery, sexual content and themed material
Running Length: 123 minutes
No, this film is not a re-issue of the “Birth of a Nation” from the silent movie era, which was about the KKK. This film is by director/producer/
Nat Turner (played as an adult by Nate Parker) was a slave, and as a child (played by Tony Espinosa), had a quest for knowledge. His owners, the Turner family, saw this and against tradition, taught Nat to read the Bible, at which he became proficient and later a preacher. Principal among his supporters on the plantation were Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller who has a wonderful expressive face in this role), and the son of the owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), whose friendship with Nat wavers in maturity. As a youth, Nat is taken to preach to congregations of white people and black people as a curiosity, and hones his Biblical sermons. Sometimes, he has unsettling dreams and doesn't know how to interpret them. In adulthood, Nat marries Cherry (Aja Naomi King) whom he rescues from a slave auction block. About this time, Samuel’s plantation is almost broke and the idea is presented to him to take Nat on trips (for pay) as a preacher to tell slaves that honoring their master’s wishes comes from the Bible---so you better do it, or else. Everyone goes along with this, as cruelty presents itself more and more and intrudes on their lives, until the unthinkable happens---and there is more than one rape that is implied. The slightest sign of disobedience results in beatings or worse. Everyone has a breaking point and it comes to Nat Turner. His plans for a slave rebellion go together, with an eclipse of the sun taken as a sign. The group, armed with knives, axes and whatever they can find, goes on a killing spree, using the Bible as justification, just as slave owners used the Bible to show that slavery has always existed
There are three things that hinder the quality of this film. One is actor Nate Parker’s voice, and he speaks softly through dramatic parts of the movie, using a low tone that is sometimes lost on the audience. When speaking three sentences and the first one is not heard, it can be confusing. Second, in a few scenes where the slaves meet at night in a barn, a spotlight’s glare is seen through the wood slats. Third, the sound track is too loud and intrusive to what is going on. The old axiom, “Cue the sunset...cue the music...” happens once too often here, so you could close your eyes and know what is about to happen.
As for acting, Nate Parker as Nat Turner, is on screen a great deal of the time. His demeanor is meek, which is what was expected of a slave at this time. His eyes give him away, though, and white people are quick to notice this. Preaching is part of the movie, and that is handled well, as are the turning points in Nat’s life. Armie Hammer as Samuel, doesn't have to do much acting in this film, his character is a drunkard with a bottle nearby. Aja Naomi King’s character of Cherry, Nat’s wife, goes smoothly from dramatic to patient. Roger Guenveur Smith plays Isaiah, a house servant who dresses like a butler and is several degrees higher on the scale than a field hand. He always knows the correct thing to do, while the villain, Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) lets you know he is the villain from ten paces away.
I kept looking at my watch, even though the film is just over two hours long. Much time is spent on the road with Nat preaching in various situations and you get the feeling that information was left behind and we are offered only a few tidbits of Nat Turner’s life. No mention is made of the later years of his wife or what happened to the Turner family estate after the rebellion. So much time was spent there, it makes one curious. “Birth Of A Nation” with a loud soundtrack, intrusive music, and some dialogue faint, lacked luster. With such a subject as slavery and rebellion, the finer details can be as important as the main ones.
Copyright 2016 Marie Asner