The Birth of a Nation
Directed by: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King
Rated R for disturbing violent content and some brief nudity.
2 hrs.

Usually when you watch films on slavery, there is a built-in sympathy factor for the slave as victim of white violence and oppression. Think 12 Years a Slave and Roots. Director Nate Parker has chosen a different story and a different outcome. In The Birth of a Nation, the slaves are the aggressors and the white slave owners their victims.

The story of Nat Turner is a true one. Raised on a plantation in Southampton County, Virginia, in the early 1800s, Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was considered a prodigy by slave standards. He could read and write as a boy and eventually became well-known in the area as a preacher.

When plantation owners became concerned about slave rebellions, many hired out Nat, along with his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), to come preach and encourage slaves to be obedient. What Nat Turner saw was large-scale suffering and violence perpetrated by the owners on their slaves. As his concerns grew, so did his spiritual visions about what God intended for his life. Much like Moses, Nat saw himself as a man who would lead his people to freedom.

After his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), was severely beaten, Nat grew more fervent in his spiritual beliefs. In August 1831, he led a brief slave rebellion in Southampton County that resulted in the murder of many white slave owners and their families. The result and legacy of that rebellion is much debated.

Director Parker has taken a sympathetic approach to Nat Turner’s life. He lays out his case quietly and carefully, taking pains to include as a background the broad natural beauty of eastern Virginia, in contrast to the hardships and sufferings of slave life. In one scene, Nat grimaces as he watches a slave owner punch out the teeth of a slave in chains who refuses to eat.

Parker also skillfully paints a picture of the tenuous relationships between slave owners and slaves — often members of the family, but never safe; always subject to shifts in the moods of the local community. Worst of all, slave women were always subject to the whims of whichever white slave owner wanted them for sexual dalliance.

Parker as actor combines the savvy of a slave who knows his place with the spiritual fervor of a man who is committed to following scripture. It’s a thin line he walks and he does it well, making the visual transformation on screen. He is supported by Hammer as his alcoholic slave owner and a good supporting cast of black actors, including Colman Domingo as Hark, the spiritual skeptic who becomes Nat’s closest ally, and King as Nat’s wife, Cherry.

A warning to viewers: The ending of this film will be disturbing. Innocent people, both black and white, will die, and the question of Nat’s legacy will be hotly debated. Did his rebellion help or hurt the black slave in the long run? When your whole life is ensnared in slavery, is murder for freedom justified?

The Birth of a Nation is a much different take on black history and one that is not without controversy. The question becomes: Can we accept black violence on its own terms, as a form of rebellion against slavery? Can white people be killed in a quest for freedom? Is there a deep racial bias already built into this premise?

Parker doesn’t shy away from these questions. Turner’s legacy can be traced to such groups today as Black Lives Matter, and the issues of racism and brutality are just as fresh as when Turner gathered his forces and fought back. And finally, there’s the most important question that Parker raises: the spiritual question. When it comes to killing and war in the name of freedom, whose side is God really on?