The Birth of a Nation was always going to be one of the most discussed movies of the year. The film’s historical Sundance deal, which sold for $17 Million to Fox Searchlight wasn’t just a monumental achievement for the independent film industry, but a step in the right direction in terms of diversifying Hollywood. While the hype and discussion can distract from the quality of many films, that’s not the case with The Birth of a Nation; it’s a damn good film that’s emotionally devastating and politically timeless.
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) has known nothing but slavery, born into a southern plantation under his master Sam (Armie Hammer). Unlike many slaves, Turner has been taught to read, and serves as a preacher for a community of slaves, traveling amongst plantations to spread the word of God. But when Turner becomes more and more exposed to man’s cruelty and the ugliness of slavery, he starts a revolution to free his people, and spread God’s love.
The religious allusions aren’t subtly, with more than enough Jesus imagery to discuss serious theological discussion, but the film does ask interesting questions about religion in a very different world. Parker’s exploration of Turner’s inner turmoil is completely earned, showing an intense and unflinching look at the evil of slavery. This character arc, which sees Turner struggling between his human and godly masters, is a central theme thats done well, with dialogue that’s haunting yet not obviously thematic.
Parker also knocks it out of the park with his performance; the strength of his leadership within the cast is inspiring, and many of his final moments in the film are quite moving. It’s a slow burn, building up tension and discussion to an explosive finale, but there’s more than enough to justify the 120 minute runtime. Even within the darkest of times, Parker finds the humanity and hope within these characters, which not only humanizes their struggle, but makes it more impactful.
The Birth of a Nation is a towering achievement, not just for its unflinching portrayal of slavery and bigotry, but in its universal truths about good and evil. It’s a morally challenging film that questions the justness of violence, even within the face of tyranny, and exposes a darkness in humanity few films maintain. It’s not a “great time”, but an essential viewing that serves as both a historical lesson about oppression and a timely one on hatred. Grade: -A