There are few subjects as painful or sensitive as American slavery. 12 Years a Slave forced us to take a hard look at our shameful past. Now actor-writer-producer-director Nate Parker has dramatized a story that’s been left out of many history books and deserves to be better known: the saga of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831.

Calling it The Birth of a Nation is itself an act of rebellion against D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 epic but doesn’t suit the film or its vital subject matter. Nat Turner was a bright child whose ability to read inspired his master’s wife to bring him in from the cotton fields and give him an education—so long as the only book he studied was the Bible. Turner grew up to be an eloquent and persuasive preacher, which made him an asset. At a time when plantation owners were starving their slaves because drought had made their land so unproductive, having a black preacher speak to them quelled some of their restlessness and earned Turner’s owner some badly-needed income.

Parker is a charismatic presence onscreen and enables us to share his emotions, from the joy of meeting a beautiful young slave (Aja Naomi King) destined to become his wife, to the seething frustration he feels about the brutality that surrounds him and his people.

The novice filmmaker adroitly uses humor and lighthearted moments to counterbalance the inherent drama of the piece. You get a sense of the slaves’ relationships with one another, the secret alliances and disagreements as well as the collective reaction the community endures with so much cruelty and violence in their daily lives. Turner takes it as long as he can before running out of patience. That’s when he plants the seeds of an uprising, insisting that if he and others like him stand up, for once, their voices will be heard.

The production design by Geoffrey Kirkland, costumes by Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, and widescreen cinematography by Elliot Davis belie the movie’s modest budget. Henry Jackman’s subtle use of music is particularly effective. Parker sets the bar high in terms of performances, and gets fine work out of his well-chosen ensemble.

My only complaint is his use of a well-known 20th century song to underscore a sobering image near the end of the film. This may have been deliberate, of course, a comment on how injustice and violence continue to the present day–but if so, it betrays a heavy-handedness the film avoids for the most part.

Aside from its status as a cause célebre, The Birth of a Nation stands as a notable filmmaking debut about a subject that is ever-timely. That it falls short of greatness is no sin.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024