“Birth of a Nation” tells story of slave rebellion

"Birth of a Nation" chronicles the story of Nat Turner, directed and starring Nate Parker. (Photo courtesy of "Birth of a Nation")

Finding a movie that accurately and honestly depicts the trials and tribulations of slavery in America is a difficult task, but “Birth of a Nation” does it poignantly. Directed and starring Nate Parker, the movie chronicles the story of Nat Turner, a slave and Baptist preacher who leads a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The rebellion lasted a few days and nights and resulted in the death of about 60 white, slave-owning people, unprecedented event for the time.

While the movie takes some creative liberties, it does a good job of representing the historical details. The title of the movie intentionally and ironically uses the same name as a 1915 KKK propaganda film, making a powerful statement in and of itself.

The movie opens with a young Turner in the woods for a tribal meeting. There, he is told that the birthmarks on his chest mean he is destined to be both a leader and a prophet. Turner is shown having decent friendship with his master’s son, Samuel Turner. After acquiring a book and showing an affinity for learning, the master’s wife, Elizabeth, teaches Nat to read the Bible. Over time, he falls in love with another slave, Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King) and they wed. Turner maintains a relatively good and trusting relationship with S. Turner (Armie Hammer), who becomes Turner’s master after the death of S. Turner’s father, which leads to the opportunity he is given to go preach to other plantation slaves.

Unfortunately, Samuel takes this offer in an effort to gain money. The reverend constructs a plan for Nat to preach scripture to suppress ‘unruly’ slaves. Turner sees true atrocities and abuse as he travels from plantation to plantation. Some of the more horrendous moments that stick with Turner include a white girl “playing” with a slave girl on a leash, slaves being force fed and his wife’s own attack in the woods.

These events, and S. Turner’s own betrayal of trust, lead him to gather some trusted fellow slaves and revolt against white slave owners, starting with Samuel. Turner kills his old friend, which is a serious turning point for him emotionally.

After a few nights of rebellion, the authorities catch up with them and punishment is quickly doled out. The movie ends with Nat Turner’s own martyr-esque death.

The soundtrack of this movie received much praise. A few very moving songs, perfectly fitting the plot and setting, were scored to the film, creating a layer of emotional complexity.

“Birth of a Nation,” living up to it’s “R” rating and is certainly not for the faint of heart, depicting brutal violence and emotionally stirring scenes. The acting itself was very good. Each of the actors and actresses gave very sincere performances. There were many difficult scenes Parker and King depicted very convincingly.

The writers did not tiptoe around the realities of rape, physical and emotional abuse, and extreme prejudice attitudes of the deep-South in the antebellum era and the actors more than managed the difficult job of playing these oppressed characters.

Armie Hammer, known for his roles in “Nocturnal Animals,” “Lone Ranger,” and “The Social Network,” deserves more recognition for his interpretation of one of the more complicated characters. S. Turner underwent the most change and inner turmoil, as he struggles with becoming the master and owner of his childhood friend. While he treats him with relative kindness initially, over time, S. Turner turns to alcohol and becomes more malevolent towards his slaves.

Critics say that, while the movie had good intentions, it eventually falls into mainstream clichés of biographical and slave dramas, perhaps the reason it didn’t come away with any Oscar or People’s Choice nominations. It did, however, acquire more popularity and traction than typically expected for movies that debut at the Sundance Film Festival.


The next showing in the H. Fred Simons African American Cultural Center Soul Food Cinema Series will be “13th” on Thursday, Feb. 23rd, at 6:30 p.m. in the Student Union, room 407.


Julia Mancini is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.mancini@uconn.edu.