Born in blood

Another chapter in America’s tragic racial history

Starring Nate Parker, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer and Penelope Ann Miller. Directed by Nate Parker. Cinemark 14. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Even without the recycled whiff of scandal over an incident in its director’s past, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation comes to us burdened with a rather daunting load of cultural ballyhoo and socio-political baggage. Maybe that makes the film’s poor opening-week at the box office a little more comprehensible, but it shouldn’t be allowed to deflect recognition of Parker’s film as a very rewarding movie experience with multiple points of interest.

Part of that baggage is, of course, built-in with the title—D. W. Griffith’s landmark silent film of the same name, from 1915, in effect took American movies out of the nickelodeons and into the era of big studios, big budgets and feature-length productions with grand aspirations. But what matters most in this case is that the rousing Civil War melodrama of 1915 was laden with obnoxious caricatures of black people and a fevered portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as defenders of the South’s white virtue.

Parker “answers” Griffith with a rousing pre-Civil War melodrama in which the protagonists are black and the various Southern whites, virtuous and otherwise, are seen from the vantage points, also various, of black slaves. The story this time is based on an episode of pre-Civil War history—the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

Parker himself plays Turner, and his calmly charismatic performance is one of the film’s high points. Parker’s Nat Turner is a profile in courage, moral and physical alike, and the actor brings life-size credibility to a character who is both a man of action and a man of Christian faith. As both actor and director, Parker’s understated approach to the story’s religious dimensions, a rarity in American movies in general, is one of the film’s special distinctions.

Colman Domingo has a haunted intensity as Hark, Turner’s closest associate in the slave revolt. Aja Naomi King is very good as the young woman Turner wants to marry, and Dwight Henry’s brief, impassioned embodiment of Turner’s father makes a lasting impression on the entire story.

Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) and her son Samuel (Armie Hammer), heads of the well-to-do family that owns Nat Turner’s family, are marginally sympathetic studies in white privilege and moral paralysis. The performances of Jackie Earle Haley and Mark Boone Jr., as (respectively) a vicious field enforcer and a boisterously hypocritical clergyman, bring a little lived-in depth to what might otherwise have been stock figures of violent racist males.

Overall, Parker’s Birth is a vigorous action drama with a pungent array of characters and a provocative set of social and historical reference points. Artistically, it’s not quite in the same league with 12 Years a Slave, but there’s no missing its significance as a social and cultural event and as a cinematic/mass-media landmark.