Parker's bold 'Birth of a Nation' celebrates resilience of human spirit
The most haunting image in Nate Parker's ambitious, spiritually florid slave revolt drama "The Birth of a Nation" shows a little white girl laughing and skipping in front of her Southern plantation mansion.
She moves in fluid slow motion and brandishes a rope fashioned into a noose, placed around the neck of her playmate, a young black slave also laughing and skipping.
The symbolism of the noose couldn't be more apparent. The leash suggests the white girl regards her slave as nothing more than a pet dog.
This brief, disturbing scene initiates a countdown to violent rebellion for Nat Turner (Parker), a slave preacher motivated by a stunning epiphany: The Bible offers as many passages about smiting oppressors as it does about submitting to masters. (Slave owners prefer the latter ones.)
"The Birth of a Nation" chronicles the events leading up to the 1831 revolt in which blacks killed 60 or so slave owners, and whites killed hundreds of blacks, both freed and enslaved, in response.
It took Parker seven years to bring this project to the big screen, and his patience, sense of detail and obvious emotional commitment have been rewarded with a moving, universally empathetic experience that cuts across racial and cultural divisions.
As a little boy with a gift for learning, Nat becomes a student of white matron Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), who teaches him to read and preach the gospel.
Her son Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) grows up to assume ownership of the financially strapped plantation. His lifelong relationship with Nat buffers Nat from the experiences of other slaves.
For a while, we hold out hope that Samuel might be an enlightened Christian who views Nat as something more than a piece of property.
Nat has some sway with his insecure master. He prompts Samuel to purchase a promising asset, a slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King) whom Nat finds attractive. He soon marries her.
Wisely, "The Birth of a Nation" invests some time getting to know the low-key Nat, who appears to live a fairly stable life for a slave. But then, Parker's unfussy screenplay slowly reveals the South's dark, less genteel slave culture.
A white owner uses a hammer to knock out the teeth of a slave on a hunger strike. White men gang-rape Cherry and beat her nearly to death.
Nat's conciliatory speeches evolve into couched threats that the superficial whites pay no attention to. But one of Samuel's house slaves, Isaiah (Roger Guenveur Smith), picks up Nat's transformation with wide-eyed disbelief.
Parker's project would be impressive enough as a first feature, but him being its co-writer, producer, director and star pushes it into an amazing achievement.
"The Birth of a Nation" blends occasional visual brilliance (a zoom-out shot of hanging corpses causes shudders) with effective action sequences that yet fall short of greatness. (How would Martin Scorsese have handled the mass killings of the slave owners?)
Parker's drama lacks the raw power and star-turning roles found in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave."
Parker also overdoses on spiritual trappings, not only Henry Jackman's Horner-esque score with celestial choruses, but a blunt, over-the-top messianic finale.
Parker's bold use of the title from D.W. Griffith's 1915 pro-Ku Klux Klan silent epic is inspired, for it deflates the racist power of that controversial masterpiece.
And it reminds us that the South wasn't built solely by bigots, but by those with the determination and courage to smite their oppressors.
"The Birth of a Nation"★ ★ ★
Starring: Nate Parker, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Aunjanue Ellis, Gabrielle Union
Directed by: Nate Parker
Other: A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Rated R for nudity, violence. 119 minutes