By Richard von Busack
Filmmakers who are director/writer/actors are usually more talented in one hyphenate than the other parts. The Birth of a Nation, by the much-hyped hyphenate Nate Parker, is best in one aspect: Parker has an actorly presence that makes this film immediate and powerful.
It’s the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in the early 1830s. Turner grows from a houseboy on the estate that gave him his name. When there’s a reversal of fortune on the plantation, Nat (played by Parker in adulthood) is sent into the fields to have his hands torn by the sharp cotton thorns. Parker’s Turner seems to be discovering the world of slavery as we watch—learning all the pitfalls that keep even a well-meaning, gentle slave from peace or safety.
Turner’s radicalization is balanced by the story of Turner’s master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who declines through drink and trouble. Frederick Douglass wrote that slavery poisoned both the slave and the master, and The Birth of a Nation excels at illustrating the poison’s double effect. In the guarded, eventually shattered friendship between Nat and his master, there’s a pang of loss: Hurt for Nat’s betrayal and sorrow, as well as a lesser pang for a solitary white man who could have had a good friend instead of a captive. That’s not to say that the tragedy of slavery fell equally on the whites, and the atrocities are here to prove it.
You could describe Turner as a revolutionary who grasped a martyr’s crown, or as a religious fanatic who saw signs in the heavens. The Birth of a Nation is so much of a Christian movie that it’s being advertised as enlightening spiritual entertainment. Parker may have oversimplified this dangerous rebel, the way they always oversimplify Jesus in a movie. It may not be clear to the people who are most rapt about The Birth of a Nation that you could make a movie about an Islamic suicide bomber like this, with this many injustices and a finale of slow-mo violence.