Occasionally, a movie will come along that has a greater cultural value than an artistic value. What I mean is it stops mattering how “good” a movie is and instead it becomes about how important it is.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a very good, but not great historical drama. But it is unquestionably the most important movie of the year.
The movie is the dramatization of the Nat Turner slave rebellion that sent shockwaves throughout the antebellum South and was a pivotal steppingstone on America’s path toward civil war.
“The Birth of a Nation” is the artistic vision of writer, director, producer, and star Nate Parker, who plays the role of Turner.
Parker is African American and that becomes important when you consider the American slave experience as presented by an African-American filmmaker has not been represented in a major motion picture. Ever.
Historically, movies about slavery have come from white filmmakers who have approached the subject with varying degrees of authenticity. Even the powerful “12 Years a Slave” was directed by a British man.
So why does this matter? African Americans traditionally haven’t had much control over their own history, especially as presented in popular culture. It’s no coincidence Parker titled his movie “The Birth of a Nation,” the same title as the landmark 101-year-old film that romanticized the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
In some ways, this movie is a reclaiming of that history. In the past few years, our country has struggled with what to do with symbols and monuments that honor the Confederate South and the frank and shameful fact we as a nation once condoned slavery.
It has been a truth that has been too uncomfortable to face, but this movie makes the case that, as a country, it is impossible to move forward together until we fully acknowledge what has divided us in the past.
As a historical figure, Turner was a symbol of fear in the South and, for the North, his rebellion was a wake-up call slavery was not a mutually beneficial relationship between slave and master as conventional wisdom of the time suggested.
Turner was an educated man, a slave who learned to read and became a preacher. Turner’s owner, Samuel Turner (played in the movie by Armie Hammer), was paid by other slave owners to have Turner come preach to their slaves in hopes biblical justifications of slavery would make the slaves more compliant.
“The Birth of a Nation” does an admirable job of portraying the events surrounding Turner’s life and Parker has a clear if somewhat sensational directorial style that keeps the film moving along.
There has been some controversy surrounding Parker and the rape charges against him in a 2001 trial in which he was acquitted and it would be a shame if that winds up overshadowing, or somehow “disqualifying,” the cultural importance of this move.
“The Birth of a Nation” is bigger than Parker and will remain so until there are more movies by other African-American filmmakers just like it.
“The Birth of a Nation” is rated R for disturbing violent content and some brief nudity.