The first provocation in Nate Parker’s provocative debut feature comes with the title.
“The Birth of a Nation” was, of course, the blatantly racist (though artistically daring) 1915 silent film that President Woodrow Wilson said was “like writing history with lightning.”
Parker’s film — he co-wrote it, directed it and plays the lead role — appropriates the title of D.W. Griffith’s epic celebrating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Except that Parker’s “Birth” is more a case of writing history with dignity and sorrow.
His subject is Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who in 1831 led a two-day rebellion that left as many as 60 whites dead. In the aftermath more than 200 blacks were murdered out of fear and retaliation.
It’s a fictionalized biography that follows Turner from childhood — he grew up playing with the white boy who would become his master, and despite his slave status learned to read and became an accomplished preacher — to his death on the gallows.
As with any film set in the antebellum South, we get plenty of pain (Jackie Earle Haley plays a slave catcher who exudes toxic cruelty).
But this “Birth” is no mere wallow in atrocity. Parker devotes much of the film to depicting families and universal experiences.
So while the screenplay by Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin follows Turner’s slow radicalization, it also deals with the tiny joys and pains of just existing.
That may be why, despite scrupulously accurate art direction, much of the movie is composed of close-ups. Parker appears obsessed here with the landscape of the human face and how it registers joy, pain, fear and yearning. Slavery cannot be blithely dismissed as a “peculiar institution” when you can look deep into the eyes of those on the stinging end of a whip.
And that is where “The Birth of a Nation” finds its real power — it makes each viewer a member of the slave community. By the time it’s over we wonder not that Nat Turner turned to murderous violence but that it took him so long.
There are moments of real tenderness and beauty here — like Nat’s courtship and marriage to fellow slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and his enduring relationships with his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and grandmother (Esther Scott).
And the relationship between Nat and his owner and youthful companion, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), is deep and complex, making “Birth” less a propagandistic polemic than a study in conflicting psychologies (sometimes within a single individual).
Samuel wears the title of slave owner loosely and runs a relatively easy operation, one largely free of the terrors imposed by his fellow plantation owners. That may be due to the influence of his kindly mother (Penelope Ann Miller), who years earlier identified Nat as the brightest child she had ever encountered and encouraged his education.
But with hard economic times comes a more repressive regime. Noting Nat’s status as a preacher and opinion maker in the slave community, other slave owners offer to rent Nat’s services. The idea is to nip rebellion in the bud by having Nat preach to his fellow slaves the virtues of obedience to God and to one’s earthly master.
For Samuel, a weak-willed young man over-reliant on drink, it means cold cash when his plantation needs it. For Nat, though, it means using God’s message to defend an inhuman system.
Out of Nat’s internal struggle — and Samuel’s ever-more-desperate efforts to enforce his will — is born a rebel who devises a plan to lead the local slaves in a second American Revolution.
When that explosion finally comes, it is fierce and bloody, simultaneously liberating and horrifying.
For every grotesque moment of abuse and retribution, “The Birth of a Nation” finds two of poetic grace. One particular shot stands out: It begins with a close-up of a cotton blossom then gradually widens its focus to take in a field of cotton plants stretching as far as the eye can see. It says everything you need to know about how a slave started each day during the harvest.
Parker rarely overstates his case — if anything, the cast has been coached to underact.
The result is a slice of history that sticks with you long after the lights come up.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘The Birth of a Nation’
Rated R. Time: 2:00.