The Birth of a Nation is based on the life of Nat Turner and his rise from slavery into leading a rebellion. The film was written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker who also plays the lead character along with performances from Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union, Aunjanue Ellis, Jackie Earle Haley, and Penelope Ann Miller.
Early in 2016, this movie was receiving a ton of praise as it made the rounds on the film festival circuit and was poised for a big run all the way through awards season. Nate Parker, as writer, director, and lead actor, put everything on his shoulders and came out with a brutally honest look into American slave culture. Sure, we already have 12 Years a Slave, but Parker's effort feels more raw and intimate and a lot less Hollywood, if that makes sense. He really digs deep into the dynamics of slave culture and how there was such a paradox when it came to how slaves were treated and especially when they showed more intelligence and humanity than their masters.
Parker is just as good in front of the camera as he is behind it and his performance as Nat Turner is as powerful and affecting as any I have had a chance to see over the course of the year. Other standout performances come from Armie Hammer as Nat's owner Samuel Turner and Aja Naomi King as Nate's wife Cherry. It was interesting to see Hammer in this role, especially playing a down on his luck alcoholic, as opposed to the more polished characters I usually see him take on. Jackie Earl Haley is always on point when playing a bad guy or someone of ill repute and he chews up every scene he's in as Raymond Cobb, the plantation's overseer that seems to prefer torturing and killing the slaves under his command over simply controlling them.
After watching this film, I found it odd that this story had never really seen the light of day before although, the way American history has been written, I can see why. That being said, this is a story that really needed to be told and one that everyone should see as a way to learn about who Nat Turner was and what he was able to accomplish against impossible odds. It's interesting how Parker intertwines the growth of Turner's faith and education as he transforms from a nervous young boy to a confident and rebellious man who refuses to back down. Standing on a moral ground of faith and justice, he inspired everyone around him who was willing to listen and frightened those who would not accept that a slave could be something more than a sub human and illiterate worker.
The Birth of a Nation is essential viewing not only because of the historical value and perspective that it provides, but also because it is just a really, really good movie. This is a story that needed to be told and thanks to Nate Parker's vision and passion for getting it out there, Nat Turner is a man who will never be forgotten.