The Birth Of A Nation ***

Slavery revolt drama has its virtues, but it should be offensive to anyone who’s religious.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Watching a movie about slavery is never easy. The better ones, such as Best Picture Oscar winner (and my pick for best film of 2013) “12 Years A Slave,” make you furious at the injustice and leave you in disbelief that something so awful could have occurred.

“The Birth Of A Nation” does not reach that level of fury, but it is a compelling story about a slave who led an uprising that killed 60 white people in 1831 Virginia. Like “12 Years” it’s based on a true story, but it never quite reaches the emotional peaks that made “12 Years” so powerful.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is a field slave. As a child he was taught to read the Bible by the matriarch (Penelope Ann Miller) at his plantation, and now he regularly leads fellow slaves in prayer. Turns out, he’s pretty good at it. So good, in fact, that his owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) rents him out to preach at nearby plantations.

As far as slave owners go, the Turners aren’t bad. They don’t demean, urinate on, or sleep with their slaves, so relatively speaking Nat leads a decent life. When Nat ventures out and sees the conditions in which other slaves live, however, he’s appalled. He sees his figurative brothers and sisters in tattered rags for clothes, being verbally abused, and in one instance, a man who refuses to eat gets his teeth knocked out before food is funneled down his throat. Later, a visiting plantation owner rapes a friend’s wife, and Nat himself is whipped for doing what he believes is the Lord’s work.

Through it all the Bible is Nat’s guide, and he feels blessed to have a loving wife (Aja Naomi King) and daughter. Yet he also believes God wants him to do something about the horrible social wrong of slavery, so he leads a rebellion.

This is where the film gets questionable.

Movies are a reflection of the time and society in which they’re made, and people will rightly derive racial tension and inequality from “The Birth Of A Nation.” But will people also make the connection that using the Bible to justify murder, as Nat does, could be seen as similar to modern-day Muslim extremists using the Koran for the same purpose? Even if they have a valid reason (and slaves certainly do), making heroes of people who murder in the name of religion – as opposed to doing it just for vengeance – is a dangerous message to send.

The film is top notch in terms of production value, with the costumes, production design and cinematography nicely evoking a sense of the era. The performances are not impressive but are sufficient, especially Parker, who also serves as the film’s producer, director and co-writer. One quibble is that the story is aimless at times, with one awful thing happening after another and no sign of change in sight. It gets there eventually, of course, but a stronger narrative thrust would’ve allowed for greater viewer interest throughout.

The title is taken from D.W. Griffith’s controversial film “The Birth Of A Nation” (1915), which both set the precedent for modern filmmaking and is a deeply unsettling tribute to the KKK in the Reconstruction South. Parker’s intention here, no doubt, is to re-appropriate the title with a narrative in which African-Americans rise up for the sake of their own, similar to the KKK in the original. What Parker actually accomplishes is debatable, but hopefully the message of unity, not violence, is what perseveres.

Did you know?
The film won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, after which Fox Searchlight acquired it for $17.5 million.

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