‘Birth of a Nation’ – Starring: Nate Parker and Gabrielle Union
9 out of 10
By Hayden Welty ’19
“Birth of a Nation” is an American period drama that details the life of Nat Turner, an enslaved man who led a rebellion in 1831 in Southampton County, Va.
The film is directed, co-written and co-produced by Nate Parker.
Parker also stars in the movie as Nat Turner. Armie Hammer, Ana Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union round out the cast.
Before I give my review, I think it would be dishonest and misleading if I didn’t address the scandal that has plagued this movie on the awards’ trail and at the box office:
According to an Aug. 16 The Daily Beast article, Parker was accused of participating in a gang rape 17 years ago while studying at Pennsylvania State University.
While Parker stood trial and was acquitted, his supposed accomplice in the rape, Jean McGianni Celestine, was convicted of sexual assault, although the ruling was later overturned during an appeal, according to an Aug. 12 article from Deadline Hollywood.
I feel like this controversy has overshadowed the quality of the movie, and the box office numbers agree with me: “Birth of a Nation” grossed a lackluster $7.1 million in its opening weekend, which means the film will likely land a low final domestic total.
This uninspiring total comes despite the fact that “Birth of a Nation” was greeted by a warm response from audiences: Cinemascore, an organization that polls moviegoers, said audiences gave the film an overall score of an A, with an average of an A+ grade among those under 25.
Critics were not nearly as kind. Rotten Tomatoes said the film received a measly 78 percent from critics, Metacritic gave it a 68 out of a 100, and Roger Ebert gave it a 2 out of 4, which are shabby numbers for an Oscar contender.
To me, this is extremely disappointing because I think, despite the controversy, “Birth of a Nation” is worth seeing.
For a movie about slavery, “Birth of a Nation” is beautiful: The symbolism, writing and acting beautifully captures the essence of a sober revolt that simultaneously represents the oppressed slaves’ struggle against an evil institution.
Firstly, Parker’s use of light eloquently symbolizes God’s presence in Nat’s life: He grows into a preacher, giving impassioned sermons to his fellow slaves.
He’s eventually asked to preach to rebellious slaves, to whom the slave owners anticipate he’ll deliver a message of peaceful acceptance of circumstances that will “have ’em calmed down a bit.”
However, that’s not what they get: Nat preaches fiery sermons that encourage slaves to rise up and rebel against their masters, using Scripture to justify these actions.
He believes the Lord has spoken to him, and says that while God is a God of love, he’s also a God of wrath.
Parker seems to utilize lighting as a tool that shows Nat’s development as a preacher; he also uses the images of a man being baptized, bleeding corn, and angels to further illustrate Nat’s transition. And yes, that is not a typo, bleeding corn is an image that makes sense in the context of this movie.
The acting is also stellar: Parker offers up one of the most passionate and heartfelt performances I have ever seen as a moviegoer. Featured on the screen for most of the movie, he manages to keep you enthralled throughout his entire performance with captivating conviction.
The script similarly ties it all together by intertwining clever symbolism and breathtaking acting into a heartfelt mix that makes one reflect on the morality of an institution that seems so ancient and primitive.
This fervent mix manages to mesmerize its audience for all of three hours and 13 minutes.