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Sundance Film Festival: “Birth of a Nation” epic of a doomed hero
Jan 29, 2016 | 8209 views | 0 0 comments | 681 681 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Not rated, but definite warnings for violence and thematic elements

Written by Jean McGianni Celestin and Nate Parker

Directed by Nate Parker

Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis, Jackie Earle Haley, Colman Domingo, Penelope Ann Miller and more


Everyone needs their own righteous martyr story.

Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation,” a fictionalized retelling of Nat Turner’s life and the slave rebellion he ended up leading, is a more harrowing version of movies of long beloved movies such as “Spartacus.” The heroic, doomed hero fighting against his cruel oppressors is a classic film archetype, and the movie is vitally important if for no other reason than the fact that it gives black voices the opportunity to finally tell this kind of story for themselves.

History books provide the plot spoilers for this one, though certain details have been changed for the movie. Nat Turner, a young, educated slave who learned to read from the Bible, preaches to the other slaves on the property he is forced to work. When his owner starts using that preaching to quell feelings of insurrection among the local slave community, Turner must decide how far he’s willing to be pushed before fighting back.

(Note: Though the movie is intentionally named after the incredibly racist classic by D.W. Griffith, the plots of the two movies are unrelated.)

Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of holy martyr stories – I prefer my main characters to be more complex and well-rounded – but Parker’s portrayal of Turner’s heroic arc is utterly classic and incorporates the character’s faith beautifully. It also dispels the myth of the “kind” slaveholders, making it clear that even those who treated their slaves more fairly still thought of them as nothing more than property.

The best performances come from some of the women in the cast, particularly from Aja Naomi King as Cherry and Aunjanue Ellis as Turner’s mother. Both women imbue their characters with an immense amount of quiet strength, the smallest shifts of their faces portraying a complex, beautiful interplay of emotion. 

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