Surging with a brutal, take-no-prisoners vision of a time much darker, yet comparable to today’s spectrum of injustice and loss of life, Nate Parker’s tale of a slave/preacher turned rebel leader navigating the blood-soaked Antebellum South is a searing piece of cinema.
It’s aesthetic ranges from ghastly wide shots of murdered slaves hanging from trees, to floaty sequences of newly-weds who find love in this very real nightmare that stains American history. Parker dragged a serious amount of controversy with him before his debut feature screened this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Most may have rushed to the film just to see it crash and burn, but what unfolded before the audience was art infused with lightning, a passion project impossible to ignore. Perhaps it will ink film history with the same notoriety as the racist 1915 movie of the same name, but remind us that things weren’t always this calm, injustice wasn’t a mere racial insult, or a flame war on twitter, it was right outside our homes, a nation born from blood and bigotry, where violence overshadowed everything, even God.
Religion and faith play a crucial role in The Birth of a Nation, at first it is skewed by tyrannical slave-owners to keep their prisoners quiet and God-fearing. However, as Nat Turner (Parker) and his alcoholic oppressor, Samuel Turner — played by the stellar Armie Hammer, who lends careful depth to the role, we never know if he’s truly disturbed by what he sees, or if he’s been tainted by the nest of wealthy evil — travel the smokey, decaying white fortresses check-marked throughout the Southern lands, we see them both transform. Samuel turns to alcohol, perhaps he needs to drown his conscience in booze, and Nat begins shedding tears as he preaches. The horrors he experiences awaken a revolutionary quest in which he recruits fellow slaves, all who fight for their wives, children, their lives.
The carnage notches up in the third act, so harrowing it may be seen as unapologetic and disturbing to some. Even a slow motion scene involving a young white girl skipping along with a rope tied around a black child’s neck doesn’t ease the impact. That’s clearly what Parker has set out to accomplish, though. He reminds us that the atrocities witnessed in his incendiary first title are indeed still happening right outside our windows. And although you don’t have to resort to violence, sparking conversation among us can be a stab at the darkness enveloping some parts of the world — where we can cure ignorant, insidious points of view.
In a medium over-saturated with films of little substance, that come and go with a stench of boredom, it’s always nice to see a picture like The Birth of a Nation pop up and leave the world breathless.