In the summer of 1831, a slave named Nat Turner led a 2-day rebellion in which between 50 and 65 white people were killed (depending on which source you consult) in Virginia. In retaliation, roughly 200 black people were killed, including Turner, who was hanged and skinned.
So, was Nat Turner a hero of the oppressed or a deranged killer? The new film “The Birth of a Nation” gives one answer to that question, and it won’t take long to figure out which side writer-producer-director-star Nate Parker stands on.
The movie opens with an infant Nat Turner taken to a secret ceremony hidden deep in the woods, where an old man proclaims the child to be a future leader because of a birthmark on his chest. He then raises the child into the air as everyone sings “The Circle of Life.”
OK, maybe that last part didn’t happen.
Nat grows up in a world much harsher than anything Simba put up with. As a child, his father is forced to run away after stealing food to keep the family alive. The boy shows a talent for reading and is brought into the plantation house where he learns to read — mainly the Bible.
Once he gets older, Nat is shipped off to work in the cotton fields. His owner is the sometimes benevolent — but oftentimes not — Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Nat marries Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and gets some solace in his life preaching the gospel to his fellow slaves.
The local reverend (Mark Boone Junior) notices the slaves at Turner’s farm seem more complacent than elsewhere, and believes it is due to Nat’s preaching. He convinces Samuel to take Nat around to other plantations where he can preach the gospel of obedience to other slaves.
But a series of cruel events cause Nat to — not lose his religion, but find other meaning by looking at other passages. When his breaking point comes, Nat brings together the few men he can trust and embarks on a doomed rebellion.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a gripping, powerful film. Parker takes liberties with the historical record to make Turner more heroic than was the case, but that’s common in this type of production so I’ll let it slide. The director does do a good job recreating the look and feel of the pre-Civil War south.
The acting is strong and the story is compelling. These are troubled times racially in this country and “The Birth of a Nation” gives us that much more to think about.