By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Because comparison is inevitable, let’s just get it out of the way:
Right from the get-go, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation will remind viewers of director Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave.
So, no, the former doesn’t quite match the towering impact and artfulness of the latter, which is an absolute masterwork.
But it’s remarkably close.
The Birth of a Nation is “only” marvelous, a powerful, mournful drama about slavery and systemic racism that is both admirably timeless and depressingly timely.
Nate Parker – an experienced actor (The Great Debaters, The Secret Life of Bees, Red Tails, Beyond the Lights) debuting in the director’s chair – is the star, director, producer, and co-writer of this docudrama about the largest slave uprising and rebellion in 1831 in the antebellum South.
But it was a sort-lived insurrection, lasting only a few days.
In telling this story, Parker has borrowed the title of director D. W. Griffith’s technically influential but notoriously racist 1915 silent film glorifying the Ku Klux Klan.
Beyond their matching titles, the films have little in common.
Griffith’s film focused on two white families during the Civil War and Reconstruction, while Parker’s film traces the life of peaceful Virginia preacher Nat Turner and the way religion helped to fuel his transformation into the leader and orchestrator of the insurrection that resulted in the deaths of both slaves, heretofore treated as subhuman, and slave owners, heretofore more than happy to thrive on this monstrous system and immoral arrangement.
The Birth of a Nation is not quite as unflinching in its graphic depiction of violence and cruelty as 12 Years a Slave, but neither does it shy away from the effects of such abusive acts on the victims, especially the horror encountered by Turner’s wife, Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King.
Perhaps the most potent aspect of Parker’s screenplay, based on the story he co-wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin, is the portrait of Turner as he changes into a passionate and resolute activist.
It’s a demanding and crucial role and Parker is terrifically commanding in it, as he confronts his spiritual convictions and growing outrage and necessarily turns against his childhood friend and owner, Samuel, played by Armie Hammer, who lends him out to other slave-owning plantation owners in the hopes that his sermons will placate their downtrodden slaves.
None of the other characters is anywhere near as developed and three-dimensional as Nat, but this is Parker’s show and he’s more than up to the task.
And it bears mentioning that the deeply disturbing off-screen controversy involving Parker and his co-screenwriter may well affect the reception the film gets when it opens as some will struggle to keep the art separate from the artist – which is the approach taken here.
So we’ll rebel against 3-1/2 stars out of 4 for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, an impressive and inspiring biodrama about slavery, bravery, and faith.