Three-and-a-half out of five stars
Writer-director Nate Parker also stars in "The Birth of a Nation" as Nat Turner, a slave in the antebellum South. When we meet him, however, Nat’s just a young boy (played by Tony Espinosa), living on a plantation as the property of the Turner family, puzzled by the world and his family’s situation.
Nat’s also different than the other slaves –- besides being the playmate of the eldest Turner child, Samuel, Nat has taught himself to read. When Turner family matriarch Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) learns of it, she tells Nat’s mother she’s going to take the young man into the Turner house and teach him.
Nat’s wowed by the Turner’s library, and quickly reminded of his place when he reaches for a volume and Elizabeth admonishes him, stating his “kind” wouldn’t understand those books. She instead offers one she says is good for his “kind” —- the Bible. Nat memorizes the text with great zeal, and is even allowed to read at the Turner’s church. We believe Nat has, truly, become part of the Turner family -– until old man Turner decrees, before he dies, that the young slave should be assigned to work in the fields, picking cotton.
Transition to Nat as a young man (Parker), working in a cotton field. The Turner’s plantation is now under the stewardship of Samuel (a nearly unrecognizable Armie Hammer). At this point, Parker’s direction and screenplay has us believing Samuel and Nat are still friends, but it’s a deft bit of misdirection. Away from the plantation, Samuel and Nat come across a slave auction, where Nat convinces Samuel to purchase a young, beautiful, distraught woman named Esther (Gabrielle Union) as a wedding gift for Samuel’s sister. It’s the last time Nat will influence any of Samuel’s decisions.
Although Nat has borne witness to years of horrific mistreatment of slaves on his own plantation, his awakening happens when the Turner family minister convinces Samuel to allow Nat to preach to slaves on other plantations for money. The minister believes Nat’s spiritual sermons will motivate other slaves, whose low morale and production have led to a downturn in the local economy.
Nat has seen cruelty at the Turner plantation, especially at the hands of a local enforcer named Raymond Cobb (an exceptionally scary and vicious Jackie Earle Haley), but it hardly compares to what he sees at the other plantations. Nat realizes slave owners have grossly misinterpreted the Bible to justify dominion and ownership over other human beings. He believes God is speaking to him. He believes God wants him to lead a revolt.
Parker’s first effort as a writer-director is admirable but hardly perfect. He has a tendency to oversell impactful moments, and needs to work on building tension. At the same time, Parker is clearly great at getting in the trenches with his actors, allowing him to elicit and capture gritty performances. He’s aided here by cinematographer Elliot Davis, whose stunning, haunting images stay with you long after you leave the theater.
"The Birth of a Nation" is, at its very worst, a heavy-handed allegory about a great country’s vile past. At its very best, it’s a thoughtful, sobering and graphic reminder of the cruelty forced upon the ancestors of so many of our fellow Americans.