Dave Chapelle is a genius. On Saturday Night Live in the wake of America’s historic election of Donald Drumpf, he summed up his opening monologue with the following: “I’m wishing Donald Drumpf luck. And, I’m gonna give him a chance. And we the historically disenfranchised demand that he give us one too.” Birth of a Nation demands that same attention and interaction.
Nat is young slave who is a naturally literate young man. His owners, the Turners, see this and put a bible in his hands as a means of study. As a grown man he is permitted to preach on his own plantation and eventually is cast as the slave preacher to subdue the populations of the surrounding plantations. The continuing exposure to the most unGodly, heinous tortures of his people stokes a fire in his belly to revolt. If God is with the slaves, then he must inherently be against their oppressors.
There’s an inescapable comparison between Birth of a Nation and Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave; as they are those award buzz generating films that engage in a confronting and brutally truthful way about the history of slavery in the U.S.A. Steve McQueen punishes the audience with the desolate bondage of slavery. Although you have a finite time (it says it right there in the title) you feel such a profound and dark hopelessness that it’s like there’s no end in sight. Birth of a Nation uses the enslavement like a dam; there’s going to be a tipping point and although there’s a feeling that the characters you’re seeing are going to suffer and die at the hands of their oppressors, their actions reverberate. Nat Parker’s film says we’ll live free or die. Parker is quick to not demonise the white people in the film (while some in the film are so barbaric that they earn it); he is acutely aware of a slave’s station in the grand scheme of things. What happens on your plantation can be progressive, and bordering on lenient until your behaviour reflects poorly on your masters. Parker and co story writer Jean McGianni Celestin make spiritual connections with the African ancestors and tribal lore perfectly in the film. As the slaves’ customs are essentially extinguished, their culture is refracted through the Christianity. The attempts by their owners to use religion as a means for both comfort and subjugation backfires spectacularly.
Parker’s leading performance is quality; portraying eloquence, heartbreak and ferocity. The supporting raw power and grace of Aunjanue Ellis (as Nat’s wife Nancy), and other strong backs that become soldiers for this cause Colman Domingo, Chiké Okonkwo make for a tremendous ensemble. Armie Hammer does a good job of being able to play understanding and support, within the realms of what he deems proper. Jackie Earle Haley is getting typecast as every shade of deplorable. “Need a pasty, white racistrapistchild molestervigilantedream killer? Haley is your man.”
Director Nate Parker and Birth of a Nation rumbles with the ache of inevitable failure. Where films like Django Unchained allow you the blaxploitation fantasies of exacting vengeance on the worst of the worst; Birth of a Nation wants to reinforce while the historically displaced and disenfranchised have hate tattooed on their very bones. Black voices telling black stories is essential.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Nate Parker
Written by: Nate Parker (screenplay/story), Jean McGianni Celestin (story)
Nate Parker … Nat Turner
Armie Hammer … Samuel Turner
Penelope Ann Miller … Elizabeth Turner
Jackie Earle Haley … Raymond Cobb
Mark Boone Junior … Reverend Zalthall (as Mark Boone Jr.)
Colman Domingo … Hark
Aunjanue Ellis … Nancy
Dwight Henry … Isaac Turner
Aja Naomi King … Cherry
Esther Scott … Bridget
Roger Guenveur Smith … Isaiah
Gabrielle Union … Esther
Tony Espinosa … Young Nat Turner
Jayson Warner Smith … Earl Fowler
Jason Stuart … Joseph Randall
Chiké Okonkwo … Will
Katie Garfield … Catherine Turner