Parker’s turn as Nat Turner turns heads



Nat Turner, played by Nate Parker, is a slave who must decide if he wants to stand up for what he believes in.

CLINTON OLSASKY, Executive Editor | [email protected]

Based on the real-life 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, “The Birth of a Nation” is an equally powerful and brutal account of one of the darkest chapters in our country’s history.

Directed by and starring Nate Parker, the film shares the same name as that of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK propaganda film, which Parker explained in an interview with the magazine Filmmaker was purposely done so as to “challenge racism and white supremacy in America.”

Many of the themes explored in Parker’s film appear disconcertingly pertinent to today’s America, and the brutality with which Parker tells Turner’s story only enhances the film’s message.

The film follows the story of Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia who grew up studying the Bible to become a preacher for his fellow slaves. In adulthood, Nat’s master tries to profit off of his preaching by accompanying him to nearby plantations to preach to other slaves. As he continues to be subjected to cruelty, Nat’s personal faith is challenged and he is forced to decide whether to fight for his dignity.

Cinematography: 4.5/5

Director Nate Parker takes advantage of the natural beauty of the Georgian countryside through meticulously composed establishing shots. Breathtaking images of low-hanging trees and vast cotton fields are effectively juxtaposed with the horrific treatment that many of the characters endure on the slave plantations.

Tight close-ups of slaves’ faces emphasize their emotional and physical pain, as well as convey a feeling of claustrophobia that reflects their trapped status. However, this juxtaposition could have been better strengthened by lingering longer on the various landscape shots before the more intense plantation sequences.

Writing: 4/5

Considering that “Birth of Nation” spans across nearly all of Nat’s life, from childhood to adulthood, the film is pretty well paced. The two hour running time almost never feels like it drags once the film transitions into Nat’s life as an adult. While the beginning of the film isn’t poorly written by any means, the relationship between Nat and his father could have been much more developed, in order to bring more emotional depth to the parts of the film during Nat’s later life.

The rest of the film benefits from a juxtaposition between uncomfortably graphic violence and softer, dialogue-driven scenes. While the violence is almost so graphic that it may seem excessive at times, the emotional weight in these other scenes – as well as the film’s overall historical context – certainly justifies this extreme degree of violence. In addition, the violence is ultimately not one-sided, which adds a layer of complexity to the film.

Acting: 4/5

Nate Parker’s inspiring performance as Nat Turner is filled with emotional pain, as well as masterful physicality. Parker often uses his eyes  to add emotional depth to the character. There are numerous heartbreaking scenes throughout the film during which Parker’s eyes are either brimming with tears or alight with rage.

However, the first couple of scenes with Turner and his love interest Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King, do come across as a little too heavy handed.  With that being said, while Parker’s approach to Turner as a timidly shy person in these first initial meetings with Cherry appears fairly cliché, it does successfully add another layer to the character.

Besides Tuner, the rest of the cast does a good job at creating realistic characters to inhabit the world of the film – both the resilient slaves and the morally reprehensible slave owners.

King’s performance as Cherry is particularly strong, as she effectively provides the romantic foil for Parker through her extremely convincing portrayal as a broken down woman whose love for her man inspires her to continue on.

Overall: 4/5

“Birth of a Nation” is a compelling and historically important film that delivers a socially conscious message of human dignity and the power of spiritual resilience. The film serves as both an intense character study of Nat Turner, as well as an engrossing history lesson that remains all too relevant in today’s racially combative world. Besides a few minor instances of cliché acting and pacing issues, “The Birth of a Nation” is a beautifully directed and disturbingly violent film that is sure to linger in the minds of anyone who sees it.