Review: "The Birth of a Nation," with Nate Parker and Gabrielle Union

If you're a Braveheart fan who's not a racist, have I got a movie for you!



Asked my initial reaction to The Birth of a Nation, writer-director Nate Parker's film based on the August 21, 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner, I acknowledged being moved by the film, but noted that the early portion of the story seemed a bit over-familiar.

I was glad to have a few days to mull over what I'd seen before writing about it.

RELATED: LA Times runs Gabrielle Union's op-ed "I cannot take Nate Parker rape allegations lightly."

The next day I got a call from someone else who had attended the screening. During the discussion, my friend referred to “the nice slave owner” and I exploded, “There were no 'nice' slave holders, They paid money to take kidnapped human beings and force them at gunpoint to do their work. They stole lives. They were vile, every single one of them. There were no 'nice' slaveholders!”

My friend wasn't excusing any of the slaveholders, of course. She was merely making reference to a slaveholder who was less verbally abusive than this neighbors. Didn't matter, though, my switch had been flipped.

I expect a lot of people will be stirred up by The Birth of a Nation, in part because it appears the goddamned war isn't really over yet. It's late 2016 and a substantial number of Americans have been throwing a tantrum for 8 years because they don't like the color of the President's skin. One of the current presidential candidates has been courting white supremacists while claiming he isn't racist. And there is controversy from coast to coast because some citizens have the nerve to say that Black Lives Matter.

The first movie titled The Birth of a Nation - D.W. Griffin's 1915 epic – presented the post Civil War days in such an inflammatory fashion that it reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan. Good on you, Nate Parker, for taking the title and flipping it around.

Is Parker's movie accurate?

SPOILERS ABOUND: The real Nat Turner (played by Parker) considered himself a prophet. We see that in the film version. When the rebellion happens, Parker's followers killed a number of slaveholders (we see that) along with their wives, mothers and children (we don't see that). A slaveholder is beheaded (we see that and it really freaked out some of the sneak preview audience members).

You will meet an exceptionally foul man played by Jackie Earle Haley who ends up in a wrestling with Turner over a knife in one particularly stirring scene. Haley's character is made up, as is the fight.

The rebellion was quickly squashed, and many Black human beings who were not involved were killed by white human beings. Slavery continued for three more decades, but Turner's actions destroyed (at least for a while) any false sense of complacency and reminded slaveholders that the people they forced to do their bidding were kidnapped human beings being held prisoner. END SPOILERS.

Parker's film offers no resolution. It is about the birth of a nation, and that birth is still in progress (over 185 years of labor?? For Pete's sake, somebody get America some ice chips!).

Nate Parker is a big fan of Braveheart, so much so that he thanks Mel Gibson in Birth's closing credits. I just thought of the perfect quote to use on the Rotten Tomatoes website. Here it is: If you're a Braveheart fan who's not a racist, have I got a movie for you!

It's more than just a wisecrack. Parker's love of Braveheart shows throughout the film, from its fixation on physical suffering to its well choreographed fight scenes. Some of the imagery during the rebellion is particularly evocative. Parker is very good as Turner, capturing his needs, his heartaches, and his faraway “prophet” gaze. Is it an indicator of contact with the Lord or a psychotic episode? Your call.

The Birth of a Nation may be a blend of indie sensibilities and Hollywood imagery, but it works. There's something happening here ...


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