By KIMBERLY GRANT
Special to South Florida Times
It’s finally here; the release of the highly anticipated Birth of a Nation. It’s a film that many in the black community are waiting with baited breath to see. Not just because of its record-breaking $17.5 million sale at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year (Fox Searchlight owns the film.) The film’s writer (with story help from Jean McGianni Celestin), director, and star Nate Parker’s excitement is contagious.
The title Birth of a Nation is a play on words from the 1915 Ku Klux Klan propaganda bait of the same name. In the film, Nat Turner (played by Parker) is a young black preacher who travels Southampton County, Virginia with his slave master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), to other plantations where the useless and ignorant slave owners pay for Nat to talk “bible sense” into their slaves. It works for a time, until Nat is confronted with the real brutality of slavery and begins to interpret the bible for himself.
He has to witness the hardships of children forced to be playmates for their white counter- parts. His wife is brutally attacked because she was ten paces away from her owner’s property line. And, the slaves are tortured for small things like not wanting to eat the slop that their owners try to feed them. Seeing the atrocities of the time and believing that God is leading him to do some- thing about it leads Nat to begin a 1831 slave rebellion that lasts 48 hours and results in mass hysteria amongst southern whites who are gripped with fear. Their slaves have realized that there are far more of them than their owners. Nat is a force to be reckoned with.
The film has a stellar cast that includes Aja Naomi King as Nat’s wife Cherry, Gabrielle Union as silent slave Esther, Colman Domingo as Esther’s husband Hark, Aunjanue Ellis as Nat’s mother Nancy, Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Dwight Henry as Nat’s father Isaac, Esther Scott as Nat’s grandmother Bridget, Roger Guenveur Smith as butler Isaiah, Penelope Ann Miller as Samuel’s mother Elizabeth, and Jackie Earle Haley as slave catcher Raymond.
Through Parker’s director’s eye, the film shows a brutal, unflinching world where blacks are treated worse than cattle. This notion is not news. As Americans, we have been taught some of our history as it pertains to slavery. But, in the words of King at the 2016 American Black Film Festival panel for Birth: “We don’t understand it viscerally, until we see it.”
The film is a powerful reminder that this type of barbaric racism was in practice and encouraged just a century and a half ago. This year, alone, we’ve seen what violent ignorance looks like on television from video footage of police brutality to series like WGN’s Underground and A+E’s Roots. Then again, with those television shows, the trend of the white man (or woman) saving the black community prevails.
“Our narrative has been hijacked and we need to take it back,” said Parker at the ABFF panel. He stated that throughout the filming process, people kept telling him that a film where the black man saves himself will never get put into theaters. Thankfully, those people were wrong.
What’s even more impressive is how quickly Parker was able to make this film, given that this was the first film he’d directed. Not many people could pull off a period drama in 27 days with a $7million budget and a cast of veteran actors. It’s a testament to Parker’s abilities as a filmmaker, a writer, and an actor. Birth of a Nation is a work of art by professionals who clearly took the film seriously and created something that is so necessary.
In a year where we were gifted with Under- ground and Roots, Birth of a Nation caps a trifecta of quality entertainment that reminds all Americans of their history and how far the black community has risen to become resilient and steadfast in their fight for justice. How exciting.