For the foreseeable future, Nate Parker’s directorial debut “The Birth of a Nation,” which was the big winner at Sundance earlier this year and just showed at the Toronto film festival, will be shrouded in the recent news of a rape accusation against its writer-director-star-producer while at Penn State in the late 1990s.
How that will affect the movie’s box office and award-season chances is another story.
But we’ll delve into the movie itself, which focuses on Nat Turner (played by Parker), the slave who led a rebellion against the white masters of Southampton County, Virginia, in the 1830s.
A passion project for Parker, who spent years putting it together on his own terms, the movie is an ambitious undertaking for a first-time director. Having enough money to pull off a period piece is essential, but so is possessing the talent to build a compelling story that looks at the life of a person few know about.
The production value and beautiful cinematography make for an authentic 1800s South, but the tone is a slow burn. At times the movie is a slog as we go through the childhood of Turner, who is taught to read by the wife of the plantation owner (played by Penelope Ann Miller). He’s taught the Bible, as other books are only for whites and he “wouldn’t understand them,” he’s told.
It’s when Turner becomes an adult and is told by a master (Armie Hammer) to travel with him to other plantations to preach to fellow slaves to lift their spirits (as rumours have started of emancipation) that the movie finds its groove.
Powered by Parker’s emotional portrayal of Turner, the sermons give a jolt the movie needs, and the momentum builds as we begin to see the other slaves on the plantation with Turner begin to flock to him as a person who can lead them to a better future.
That future involves killing their masters and forming an army that can overtake a nearby armory, where with guns they can take on any foe who comes at them.
News has spread since “The Birth of a Nation” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year that one of the filmmakers Parker turned to for advice was Mel Gibson, and that is evident.
Parker’s movie has a “Braveheart” feel, from the plot of a man attempting to overpower an oppressor to the bloody battle sequences. But you can also find an homage to an African-American writer-director-producer-star previous to Turner.
A shot of Turner running through the woods at the conclusion of the movie harks back to the end of Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 landmark “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” in which Sweetback runs into the night being chased by police with dogs.
The last 15 minutes of “Birth of a Nation” are its highlight. A stirring score matches the action on-screen, and among the savagery, Parker inserts lasting imagery, like a butterfly on the coat of a dead child.
Parker’s talents in front of and behind the camera in this movie are undeniable. It remains to be seen if the open questions around the rape accusation, and subsequently the cloud hovering above the film itself, will cause audiences to miss that talent.