In the Summer of 1831 Nat Turner and several dozen of his cohorts launched the largest slave uprising in the nation. Sickened by the treatment of fellow slaves while traveling as a preacher in Southern Virginia, Turner secretly recruited the willing, for the upcoming rebellion. On the morning of August 21, 1831, the group led by Turner, killed in upwards of 60 white men, women and children in the two day long revolt. Though the uprising was brief, the impact had long lasting effects. My biggest concern for Nate Parker, the writer, director and star of the film Birth Of A Nation, was if he’d play it safe. The contentious subject matter in this racially charged climate is already a conversation starter.
It’s a tricky business, juggling the importance of Turner’s place in history, without being perceived as celebrating the violence that made him famous. There isn’t a happy ending to this story. You should feel sickened by the brutality of slavery and enraged by those that defend its practices today. Unfortunately, Birth Of A Nation didn’t reflect the complex, deeply religious, prophet like figure, history portrays Turner to be. A provocative orator, delivering sermons to slaves on neighbouring plantations in Southampton County, Virginia; Parker lacks the fire needed to be the black William Wallace.
There are lofty goals for any film depicting the life and times of Nat Turner. The leader of one of the more famous slave revolts of antebellum South, Turner is as much as a polarizing figure today, as he was in 1831. Like 12 Years A Slave (2013) and Selma (2014) before it, Birth of a Nation desperately tries to fill a void left by the lack of diversity in Hollywood, so kudos to writer, director and star Nate Parker for doing his part to fill that void. Unfortunately, most of the pre-release press isn’t of Parker’s stirring role as the fiery preacher, but of his 1999 rape allegations. He was acquitted back then, but has come off as less than endearing in recent interviews. Nate Parker has two problems. It’s unfortunate that one narrative can overshadow a different and equally important conversation; a conversation sparked by the life of Nat Turner. It would’ve been easier for Parker to let his work stand on its own merits, but therein lies his second problem, Birth of a Nation isn’t as good as it needed to be.
Rated: R @ 119 minutes
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