The Birth of a Nation, B+
Rated R, 120 minutes
Though it treads familiar ground, the stirring and relevant slavery drama "The Birth of a Nation" is a must-see. The violent subtext makes "The Birth of a Nation" a difficult movie to watch at times, but it's also a powerful, pertinent statement on past and present racial relations in the United States. Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is an enslaved Baptist preacher who lives on a Virginia plantation owned by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). With rumors of insurrection in the air, a cleric convinces Samuel that Nate should sermonize to other slaves, thereby quelling any notions of an uprising. As Nate witnesses the horrific treatment of his fellow man, he realizes that he can no longer just stand by and preach. On Aug. 21, 1831, Turner's quest for justice and freedom leads to a violent and historic rebellion in Southampton County that would serve as a precursor to The Civil War. Directed, written, co-produced and starring Nate Parker ("Beyond the Lights"), the powerful, Oscar-worthy "The Birth of a Nation" is not a remake or in any way related to the D.W. Griffith 1915 silent film of the same name that was a propaganda tool for the KKK (its title used some what ironically here), and is a stirring reminder that our nation's roots evolved from standing up for our beliefs. The winner of the Grand Jury prize and Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, first-time feature director Parker has crafted a captivating portrait of slavery and race relations, even if it treads similar ground as other movies in this genre, such as "13 Years a Slave," and "Glory," the latter of which is evident in a haunting whipping scene, down to the single tear that Parker sheds. "Birth" is a sublime, auspicious directorial feature debut for Parker, a familiar face from such films as "Red Tails" and "Non-Stop," and this should give him a solid, sure footing in Hollywood, not to mention, he's superb as Nat Turner, the preacher-turned-rebel. A couple of minor flaws: he never really connects Turner's preaching with violent rebellion, though Parker is very effective at espousing Bible verses, and he spends considerable time in exposition, and the rebellion, which is unforgettable and expertly handled, happens very late, almost too late, in the movie, but when it does, it's something you won't soon forget. Hammer, along with Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller and as a memorably slimeball farmer, Jackie Earle Haley, all round out a strong supporting cast. Though it's very early to say, the gripping, superbly acted and directed "The Birth of a Nation" makes a difference and could easily be remembered come Oscar time (though some controversy around Parker's past troubles could minimize that), but don't wait until then, make it a point to see it now, as it will surely stay with you.