With the title of his new movie “The Birth of a Nation,” writer-director-actor Nate Parker deliberately evokes D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film of the same name.
It’s arguably Parker’s boldest move.
Griffith’s silent-era release was a phenomenon, changing not only the way people looked at and thought about movies, but also, through its sheer cinematic power, inspiring (perhaps indirectly, perhaps not) a new wave of racism, reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan.
Parker’s choice of title suggests he has something up his sleeve, something he wants us to chew on. But, at the same time, his movie takes the low road.
While “The Birth of a Nation” is visceral, rousing and eye-opening, it employs simplistic, primitive tactics. It’s unclear if these were designed to whip up an audience into a froth, or if they are merely the work of a raw amateur — or both.
Yet for every ludicrous device — a weapon just out of reach during a fight scene — Parker provides haunting, disquieting images that linger.
“The Birth of a Nation” tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave who led an 1831 uprising that resulted in the deaths of some 60 whites.
Even if Parker’s writing and directing are not without flaw, he gives a lead performance above reproach.
Encouraged to read the Bible from a young age, Nat grows to be a natural preacher. His cotton plantation master Samuel (Armie Hammer) takes Nat to other plantations to preach to other slaves. Nat is enraged by the cruelty he sees on these trips, but holds his tongue.
After his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is brutalized by a sadistic white man (Jackie Earle Haley), and after a fellow slave’s wife is given to a white guest as a plaything, Nat begins to sow the seeds of rebellion.
In essence, this “The Birth of a Nation” is a big revenge picture, enhanced by Parker’s thin portrayal of white characters: they are all unwashed, drunk, mean and have bad teeth.
Still, after a century of black stereotypes in films, is Parker’s use of white stereotypes justified?
The result is an eagerness to see these nasty bigots pay dearly; the film stirs up hatred against the haters. If this movie is an Oscar contender, it’s far closer to “Braveheart” than it is to “12 Years a Slave.”
Whether “The Birth of a Nation” will inspire discussion, whether its thesis is worthy is not clear. Most of the current conversation seems to be centered on Parker’s 1999 accusation of rape, and subsequent acquittal. Maybe this brutal, powerful, flawed movie is all we’re equipped to handle right now.
The Birth of a Nation
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union
Written by Nate Parker, based on a story by Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin
Directed by Nate Parker
Running time 2 hours