Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation is set two centuries ago, yet a more timely film is hard to imagine, when black lives demand to matter, by any means necessary.
The Birth of a Nation feels like one of those necessities, a cauterized reminder of antebellum slavery, and a rebellion in 1831 Virginia led by a minister slave demonized in William Styron's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Parker's screenplay, direction and portrayal of Nat makes him saint and inspiration, taking back African-American history while also stripping D.W. Griffith's movie title of its racist singularity. Justice, of a sort.
This is a different movie than 12 Years a Slave, with its shanghaied, educated freeman who could always hope for rescue. Nat's world is a rawer depiction of human degradation, a violent suppression seeping into generations beyond. When Nat begins preaching insurrection, his cause feels righteous, perhaps cathartic. Vengeance is his, Nat hears from the lord, and The Birth of a Nation becomes a freedom manifesto as bloody as Braveheart, primed to inspire and disturb.
Parker makes an assured feature filmmaking debut, with poetic imagery and powerful narrative. After nearly two dozen minor film roles, Parker constructed a nobly purposed star vehicle for himself. The Birth of a Nation isn't just an important statement but an artfully composed film, certainly one of 2016's finest.
That's where the trouble begins.
New celebrity brought renewed scrutiny of Parker's 1999 arrest on sexual assault charges while at Penn State University. He was acquitted. Another defendant, Jean Celestin, who helped write this movie, later had his conviction overturned.
The plaintiff committed suicide in 2012. Her brother claims the alleged assault was a contributing factor. Parker claims he was unaware of her death until recently, and his initial responses in interviews are viewed by some as insensitive.
On Sunday night, Parker told 60 Minutes he won't apologize after being "vindicated" by the court.
It's a tragic distraction from a movie this important, as art and retro-social commentary. Parker's behavior as a 19-year-old college student, regrettable at best and criminal at worst, is fodder for anyone hoping he'll fail. Some would've wished that even if the case hadn't re-emerged; a movie in 2016 about a militant black man will find enemies.
Nat's transformation from victim to avenger begins in childhood, with African rites of passage continued and dreams of ancestors portending future greatness. Young Nat (Tony Espinosa) is a playmate for Samuel Turner (Griffin Freeman), heir to the family giving surnames to their slaves. Samuel's kind mother (Penelope Ann Miller) teaches Nat how to read the Bible, sending him on a spiritual path.
Years later, Nat (now played by Parker) picks cotton, with Samuel (Armie Hammer) protecting him from sadistic overseers. Nat convinces Samuel to buy a teenage slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King) so they can marry. One day, the local preacher (Mark Boone Junior) suggests a way to make money from Nat's preaching skills: Rent him to other plantation owners, to spread a submissive gospel.
The tour leads to a procession of plantation horrors, including a gruesome end to a slave's hunger strike. Each stop on the tour brings Nat deeper resentment that he takes back to his Turner plantation sermons. Samuel notices a change in Nat, a defiant spark that must be snuffed.
The revolt begins after Cherry is sexually assaulted off-screen by white overseers. Retribution is savage, after it's encouraged by Nat's faith and shattered psyche. Dozens of men, women and children of both races die. Nat's insurgency will be brutally martyred.
Yet even in his film's most visceral moments, Parker keeps things on simmer. Henry Jackman's musical score in particular is minimal when the action would typically call for suspense or majesty. At times, cinematographer Elliot Davis stays tight on characters' faces, drawing us into their distress. Other moments display a Kubrickian distancing from the horror, muted even more by quasi-natural lighting. Geoffrey Kirkland's production design impresses throughout.
The only thing Parker's film has going against it is poor judgment then and now, when "then" came around again. He isn't Roman Polanski in evading prosecution, Woody Allen in enduring suspicion, or either Oscar winner in terms of sexual predator accusations. Parker also isn't white like them, which sadly is enough for some. Even so, The Birth of a Nation is black, alive and genuinely matters.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.