Actor-director-producer Nate Parker made history by inking a landmark $17.5 million Sundance deal to sell his slavery drama The Birth of A Nation to Fox Searchlight, starting his 2017 Oscar campaign a full year early. The vibrant and lyrical portrait of the divisive African American hero is an incendiary inquiry into themes of racism and faith that still echo today.
A perfect storm of elements converged to make Parker’s pre-Civil War slavery biopic the most electrifying debut of this year. It began, of course, with the provocative true story of Turner, a slave and preacher turned rebel leader whose violent uprising left 60 white slave-owning men, women, and children slaughtered and has long occupied a morally ambiguous place in American history books.
Then, from Nat to Nate: Parker’s own seven-year quest to bring Turner’s story to the screen—boldly co-opting its title from D.W. Griffiths’s 1915 film, one of American cinema’s most famously racist “classics”—saw him quit acting for a year to finally make it happen after being discouraged time and again. In the end it took a village, as evidenced by end credits naming four production companies, over a dozen exec producers, and special thanks to folks like George Lucas and, curiously enough, Mel Gibson.
And third, the fortuitous confluence of timing that aligned The Birth of a Nation’s world premiere with peak industry fury over racial homogeny at next month’s Academy Awards. This year’s Oscars will be so white, but 2017 now already has its first Best Picture contender of color since 12 Years A Slave—not coincidentally, also about the ugly stain slavery left on America’s past.
As journalists scrambled to ask every marginally famous celebrity about the lack of black Oscar nominees this year in the snowy white-blanketed and predominantly white ski resort town of Park City, Utah, The Birth of a Nation felt all the more urgent and relevant. “If it doesn’t get nominated next year,” I heard a (Caucasian) man joke, cluelessly reaching for the zeitgeist while waiting for a shuttle at Sundance, “there could be an uprising!”
Some might dismiss the film’s hot buzz as merely a byproduct of the diversity crisis in Hollywood—particularly serendipitous timing for a movie directed, co-written, produced by, and starring an African-American filmmaker, about the most despicable era for racial injustice in our country’s history. But it’s not so much the series of documented events depicted in The Birth of a Nation that earn it its resonance, as it is the stirring, soulful, and incendiary spirit that courses through its veins, anchored by an utterly extraordinary performance by Parker himself.
The real Turner was a slave and homegrown Baptist preacher famed for spreading the gospel in sermons to other slaves. He reported having religious visions and took a solar anomaly in the skies in August of 1831 as a sign from God to commence his bloody insurrection.
In the film, Turner’s faith is twofold. His visions, depicted beautifully in dreamlike scenes, feature African ancestors who tell him he’s a prophet, a chosen one destined to lead his people to freedom. In his waking life, the word of the Christian God is his guide, and his opiate—but as Turner’s eyes are opened to an increasingly brutal string of atrocities committed with impunity by whites against black slaves, his interpretation of the good word shifts seismically.
Parker, who co-scripted with Jean McGianni Celestin, directs his own career-best performance as the principled but morally conflicted Turner, whose spiritual reawakening is a lifetime in the making.
When his intelligence is noticed at an early age by the matriarch of the family, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), young Nat is taught to read—but is allowed only to read the Bible. Black folks simply wouldn’t understand other books, she explains to the boy, who learns early on not to betray the outrage roiling through his veins every time he’s subjected to sheer dehumanizing ugliness.
Even in Elizabeth’s gesture of kindness there’s an undercurrent of deep-seated bigotry, a dangerous dichotomy amplified more in her son, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Once a childhood playmate of Nat’s, Sam is given to protecting Turner from the abuses of other cruel white men, and buys a woman named Cherry (Aja Naomi King) for Turner when Turner falls for her across the auction block. But when the cash-strapped Sam agrees to rent out his prized slave preacher to other, harsher plantation owners in their agrarian Southampton County, Virginia, the two bear witness to increasingly dire abuses, including one horrific dental torture of a slave that drives Sam to drink, and Nat to revolution.
Though prone to stagey compositions that can play as distractingly ham-fisted, Parker deftly weaves in flashes of lyrical, haunting symbolism that break up the historical reenactments: A soaring camera glides over a cotton field; crimson blood gushes out of a wounded ear of corn; a butterfly alights delicately on the shirt of a young black boy as the camera pulls back to reveal he’s been lynched, his body swinging from a tree.
His full-bodied and sensitive portrayal of Turner is the film’s revelation. Deeply empathetic and increasingly conflicted by his own role as a pawn to stamp out dissension among slave quarters, Turner’s gradual awakening explodes after he engages in a fiery Scripture-quoting battle with a white preacher (Mark Boone Jr.). Delivering a blistering, tear-filled guest sermon under the watchful eye of a sadistic slave owner, Turner’s doublespeak is plain—at least, to those listening onscreen and in the audience.
What’s most important is that Parker is playing with larger themes of faith and moral justice, and as the film makes its way into release in 2016, an election year, we should consider what the legacy of a man driven to righteous violence should be. That may be why Parker spends considerably more run time exploring the psyche of the pre-radicalized Turner than he does on the famous uprising and its aftermath at Harper’s Ferry. Those scenes explode in purposeful violence, incited by Turner’s nighttime hatcheting of his own master, and continuing as his growing mob of slaves make their way across the south to the armory where, they believe, they’ll be able to restock.
Parker is generous with his supporting cast, too, who are all uniformly good in roles that boast difficult and humanizing dualities. Hammer in particular undergoes a tricky transformation as economic pressures and a creeping conscience turn Sam into just another brutal slave owner. Jackie Earle Haley is perfectly odious as a slave catcher who has it out for Turner, and King is wonderfully open as the purehearted Cherry, whose inner strength emerges unexpectedly in one of the film’s toughest-to-watch moments.
By the time Turner and his rebels face off for the last time, armed with axes and blades, against an army of musket-bearing militiamen, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion what happens next. But Parker for some reason glosses over the lost two months in which Turner was a fugitive at large, and reinvents the way in which he was ultimately captured and punished by death, mythologizing the man to the end.