When I first saw Nate Parker’s epic drama “The Birth of a Nation” at the Sundance Film Festival in January, I praised the movie effusively, calling it “history written with lightning.”
Like Parker’s title, my phrasing was a deliberate act of reclaiming history. The line is attributed to President Woodrow Wilson, who used it to describe D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film of the same name. Griffith’s movie, for all its pioneering film techniques, is justifiably reviled for its naked racism.
Parker’s movie — which left Sundance with rapturous acclaim, the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and a $17.5 million distribution deal from Fox Searchlight Pictures — took back the title from Griffith’s glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Instead, Parker aimed to cast a new light on a figure almost forgotten in American history: Nat Turner, the Virginia slave and preacher who in 1831 led one of the deadliest rebellions of enslaved African Americans in the antebellum South.
Since Parker’s triumph in January, more history has emerged that may complicate an audience’s reception of the movie. There’s the history we’re living, in the continuing cycle of African Americans killed at the hands of police, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. But there’s also Parker’s personal history resurfacing in the media — specifically, a 1999 rape accusation against him when he was a 19-year-old student at Penn State. (Parker was tried and acquitted; his friend Jean Celestin, who shares story credit on this film, was found guilty, though the verdict was overturned on appeal and prosecutors declined to retry the case.)
With all that swirling around us, we — critics and moviegoers alike — now encounter “The Birth of a Nation” through a different perspective than we did in January.
Seeing it again, knowing more about Turner and Parker than I did in January, I came to the same conclusion: This is an electrifying, powerful, important movie.
Parker begins with Turner’s childhood in Virginia, as he sees his father, Isaac (Dwight Henry), forced to run away after killing a slave hunter one night. Raised by his mama (Aunjanue Ellis) and his grandma (Esther Scott), Nat grows up playing hide-and-seek with Samuel, the son of his owner. The owner’s wife, Miss Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), sees Nat’s intelligence — so she teaches the young slave to read “the best book ever written,” the Bible, and Nat learns it completely.
As an adult, Turner (played by Parker) still picks cotton, but he also acts as a preacher to his fellow slaves. The adult Samuel (Armie Hammer), eager to reduce the debt on the plantation he inherited from his father, makes some coin selling Nat’s services as a minister to neighboring plantations — whose owners hope that the right bit of scripture, spoken by a fellow slave, will make other slaves more obedient.
On the road with Samuel, Turner witnesses how other plantations treat their slaves more cruelly than Samuel does. He also persuades Samuel to purchase a young woman, Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King), who would later become Turner’s wife.
But as he sees and is subject to more brutality — committed by other slaveholders, by a ruthless slave tracker (Jackie Earle Haley) and, ultimately, by Samuel — Turner turns to the biblical verses that condemn slavery rather than condone it. From there, it’s a short step to plotting an uprising against the whites in Virginia.
Parker marshals his large cast — including Colman Domingo, Roger Guenvuer Smith and Gabrielle Union — and some powerful behind-the-camera talent, such as cinematographer Elliot Davis (“Twilight”), production designer Geoffrey Kirkland (“Children of Men”) and composer Henry Jackman (“Captain Phillips”).
With this talented crew behind him, Parker creates a grand period film that, despite its indie budget, carries the sweep of such epics as “Braveheart” and “Spartacus.” And he does this while also carrying the full weight of his portrayal of Nat Turner, which is as explosive and heartfelt as his movie.
In the final reel, in the aftermath of Turner’s rebellion, Parker brings “The Birth of a Nation” full circle with images that encompass the Civil War, lynchings, the civil-rights era, and the Black Lives Matter movement. When Cherry Ann tells Nat that “they’re killing people all over for no reason except being black,” her words jump through 200 years of history to wake everyone up to horrors that have never gone away.
That message — regardless of what one may think of Parker’s personal history — remains strong and insistent, and makes “The Birth of a Nation” a movie that deserves attention and respect.