The Birth of a Nation

Nate ParkerUSA120 minutes201514AColourEnglish

Writer-director Nate Parker reclaims the title of D.W. Griffith’s KKK-boosting 1916 milestone for this epic chronicle of the life of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion against white plantation owners in 1831 Virginia.

Nate Parker's directorial debut is a searing account of the life of Nat Turner, the enslaved African-American who spearheaded an insurrection in 1831. From its very title, appropriated from the canonized yet deeply racist D.W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation announces itself as a corrective reclamation of American history.

Born into slavery in Virginia's Southampton County, young Nat (Parker) is given to dreams in which his African ancestors anoint him a prophet. He is favoured by his masters, learns to read, and is given a Bible. By the time he is an adult, Turner has become a preacher capable of rousing oratory. He convinces his master Samuel (Armie Hammer, also at the Festival in Free Fire and Nocturnal Animals) to purchase Cherry (Aja Naomi King), whom Turner will wed. Their romance proves a fleeting idyll, however. Turner is rented out to preach at other plantations where, after years of relatively humane treatment, he becomes fully aware of the depravity and torture wreaked upon slaves — and decides that sermons are no longer a sufficient response to such appalling injustice.

Parker demonstrates a gift for eliciting textured performances from his co-stars, and his command of the camera is magisterial. The Birth of a Nation never flinches in its gaze, but it also possesses a vigorous spiritual foundation.

Turner believed that revolutionary violence would awaken others to the infernal mistreatment of slaves, and he died for this cause. The Birth of a Nation seeks to ensure that he did not do so in vain.

CAMERON BAILEY

Black + African DiasporaSocial ChangeUSAFirst FeatureHistory