Nate Parker ("Ain't Them Bodies Saints," "Beyond the Lights") delivers a somewhat ragged but wildly forceful directorial debut with "The Birth of a Nation," based on the story of preacher and slave Nat Turner. The title, taken from D.W. Griffith's diabolically racist 1915 feature, is essentially the director's mission statement for this version of the story of a Virginia slave rebellion as it flips the phrase's meaning to confront the intent of Griffith's feature and echoes of it in the audience. That title, applied to this film, is one of cinema's most audacious appropriations.
In script and performance, the film is an articulate howl of anguish and rage given depth by a discerning comprehension of the ways various communities can rely on faith for very different means. In technique, "The Birth of a Nation" aims for the aesthetics of large-scale studio filmmaking, and that ambition is never quite fulfilled, especially in the film's first half. Still, Parker often crafts urgent, even spectacular shots and sequences that convey fierce passion, belief, and faith.
In addition to writing, producing and directing, the multi-talented Parker is commanding in the lead role of Nat Turner, a slave owned by the Turner family. Taught to read in childhood by his master's wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), Turner becomes a preacher in adulthood, and his faith eventually provides a source of income for his drunk, financially troubled master Samuel Turner.
The shameful contrast between Nat's life and Samuel's, from their youthful camaraderie to adult master/slave relationship, is the first of many means by which Parker examines the business and horror of slavery. Samuel, played by Armie Hammer in a performance that weirdly parallels Michael Fassbender's work in "12 Years a Slave," is kindly towards Nat, at least when it suits him, but he never musters real compassion for his one-time friend. As an adult, Nat is merely chattel, and like every other slave, fair game for abuse from vicious men like Raymond Cobb, played by Jackie Earle Haley.
The only true source of solace for Nat is his community, family, his wife (played by Aja Naomi King), and God. While Nat's relationships with the women around him are primarily depicted in shallow fashion, his relationship to faith and God is the constantly evolving center of the film.
Initially beatific as he preaches to groups of slaves on his home plantation, Nat's understanding of the power of scripture as persuasive speech expands dramatically as his master is paid to bring Nat around to other plantations where his sermons might motivate slaves to work harder. The preacher's brow creases as he considers the co-option of his faith. Parker's excellent performance allows us to see the very moment he decides to preach subversively, delivering a message of righteous hope to his black audience as white masters look on, not entirely comprehending the meaning of Nat's words.
With impeccable control over his own expressions, Parker conveys Nat's transformation from gentle, possibly even optimistic onlooker to a hardened firebrand convinced that he has been chosen by God to lead his people out of bondage.
"The Birth of a Nation" follows the lead of "12 Years a Slave" in depicting unfathomably cruel inflictions of violence, as when the teeth of a man on hunger strike are roughly chiseled out so he can be force-fed, but it deploys those images to illustrate specific moments in Nat's development. Just as powerful are the art direction and costumes, which give the film a grounded space in which to exist, and the small glances and communications between black men and women as they tamp down each other's anger and agony.
Some images of violence play into Parker's depiction of Nat as a Christ figure: We see an overseer's whip as a snake and Nat's procession through a mob as reflection of the Procession to Calvary.
Those are ripe but effective visions; at other times, images and dialogue lean towards mawkish and awkward. Visions of a set of figures are more confusing than mysterious. A stained-glass cross plays heavily in one scene which would potentially have been even more powerful without the distraction of the omnipresent symbol — by that point we understand and believe in the character's faith.
Parker's big-screen tendencies dominate in the final act, when the spirit of "Braveheart" seems to possess the violent explosion of the 1831 rebellion, and there his aspirations are more fully realized. The climax is overtly confrontational, like a version of "Django Unchained" with the exaggeration and swagger stripped away. Parker does not question or indict the violence — these fighting men are like batteries charged with the abuse and oppression that has been inflicted upon them. When Nat's rebellion ignites, all that stored energy is released at once; the explosion is uncontrollable.
The violence of the open rebellion is visceral, and the aftermath devastating, in part because the brutal official response to the rebellion is so thoroughly anticipated as to be banal. The intensity of the conclusion is overwhelming. But it is the thought behind the script and the consideration of Parker's realization of the power of Nat Turner's speech that lingers, demanding consideration and deserving praise. [B+]