Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation is a brutal, unflinching look at slavery. In a time when race relations have become the hot button subject in an election year, this film is a timely reminder of a deplorable shared history. It shows what evils man can perpetrate on another when viewed as beasts for pure exploitation. The institution of slavery was barbarism incarnate. It built the economic and literal foundation of the United States on the whipped backs of the oppressed. This historical event is an instance where the subjugated fought back with vicious indignation. The Birth of a Nation pulls no punches in telling this story in ghastly detail.
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was a slave born in 1800 Virginia. As a boy, he secretly taught himself the basics of reading. This was forbidden and punishable by death, but his master's wife, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), shunned convention and taught him to read the bible. Nat's intelligence didn't get him far as he was put out in the fields to pick cotton after his master's death. Nat preached the word of God to his fellow slaves as he grew up.
When Nat Turner was thirty-one, his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), had an idea to exploit him further. Hard economic times had sowed deeper resentment amongst the country slaves. Turner took Nat to different farms to preach to the forlorn Negroes. The white plantation owners hoped the bible would keep the slaves in their place. As Nat went from farm to farm, he witnessed horrors that shook him to the core. He also understood that he was being used. But Nat's interpretation of the bible was also changing. It gave him a new religious mandate to strike back against his master.
Nate Parker spends a lot of time showing the daily routine and living conditions of slavery. He wants you to understand the nature of this existence. From the slave auctions, to the fields, to the horrific tools used to keep slaves in line, it's uneasy to sit through. Then he takes the film down two paths that are almost never shown. Parker shines a glaring spotlight on the rape and physical abuse of female slaves. Parker also shows how Christianity was used to mentally suppress the slaves. They were taught repeatedly that God had put them in their place, and that they should respond to every whim. These most sinister aspects of slavery are finally being depicted. Appalling is an understatement.
Coming from Fox Searchlight, The Birth of a Nation is a deeply troubling film. The slave revolt is violent. The response to the revolt, a thousand times worse. People will disagree whether violence was the answer, but this did happen. Nat Turner did have an impact. His story a history that we were barely taught. Society must come to terms with that history to deal with the prescient race issues of today.
I viewed this film with an open mind. The rape allegations against Nate Parker have become more of a story than the film. I make no judgments on his guilt or innocence, but will say this. Parker's rape trial was not a secret. It has been known from day one in his career. Parker has been an actor in Hollywood for over a decade, made numerous films, and the rape trial had never been brought up previously. But now, when The Birth of a Nation is a serious contender for award season, a campaign has been launched against Parker to discredit the film. See it for yourself as a work of art and thoughtful exploration of a dark time.