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Nat Turner Legacy Lives in ‘The Birth of a Nation’

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One of the most gripping figures of African-American history finally gets the cinematic outing he deserves in director Nate Parker’s period-piece drama, “The Birth of a Nation.” The film follows the life of slave Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker), the infamous slave preacher who led one of the most well-known slave rebellions of that time, as we get to see what leads up to this moment as we witness Turner dealing with the horrors of slavery and the inhuman treatment of his people.

Ever since 2012’s “Django Unchained,” there’s been a renaissance of sorts with films focused on African-American history, including 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” and “The Butler” and 2014’s “Selma.” This year in particular, has been quite a year for this sub genre with films such as “Race” and “Free State of Jones” to the remake of the TV mini series “Roots.” Many of these films have focused on slightly more obscure stories from African-American history, so it feels natural that Nat Turner’s infamous slave rebellion would soon be part of that line up.

Personally, I have always been fascinated with Turner’s rebellion and was surprised when most other African-American teens I talked to were unaware of who he was. His tale is most certainly more unconventional, but being a young African-American myself, I felt that knowing what he did in his life was an important way to further understand how my people fought back then. When I heard of “The Birth of a Nation,” I was curious to see just how aspects of this tale would be visualized.

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The film’s direction is smart. It attempts a more held-back and minimalistic style, much in the same way that “12 Years a Slave” does. With the soundtrack, the cinematography, the editing and even some of the acting, Parker wisely chooses a less polished approach. This simplicity ultimately allows for the more brutal and emotional scenes to play out naturally and for the power of these sequences to stay much more resonant. Speaking of, anyone going into this film should be aware that the content here can get rather intense. While the violence is executed rather well through its more realistic approach (it doesn’t have the level of grit that “12 Years a Slave” has), it can still be a lot for one to absorb.

However, the power of this film wouldn’t work if not for some powerhouse performances, and we are treated to quite a few here. Nate Parker (who also directed, wrote and co-produced the film) stars as Nat Turner and does a brilliant job showing the internal torment Nat goes through as he witnesses the vicious mistreatment of his people. Not only does the film’s direction allow for a gradual and effective build-up to the rebellion, Parker’s performance allows for the emotional weight of this build-up to work. Other noteworthy performances include Mark Boone Jr. as Rev. Walthall, Aja Naomi King as Cherry, and Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner.

My issues with the film are minor. One of these is how Turner’s religious visions are executed. Turner’s visions that ultimately lead to the rebellion were among the major factors I was anticipating to see visualized in this film. The way they’re executed here isn’t bad, but their more polished style feels somewhat out of place with the rest of the film’s more simplistic execution. These scenes didn’t come up too much, however, so it’s easy to pass them on. My only other issue isn’t even with the film itself but has to do with how audience members at the advance press screening chose to react. The audience tried so desperately to find times to laugh during many of the film’s brilliantly handled quiet moments that it took away from the atmosphere I could clearly see the director was going for.

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“The Birth of a Nation” is easily one of the most powerful films of the year. With its brilliant performances, tense buildup and clever direction, “Nation” proves that this new era of historical African-American dramas is still going strong and is not holding back from showing the realities of its times. Ultimately, we can learn a lot from films such as this about our own time, as Nat’s wife Cherry says at one point during the film, “They killing everybody, just because they’re black.” Immediately, there was a gasp from the audience. What more is there to say?

“The Birth of a Nation” is released in theaters Friday, Oct. 7.

Mikael, 18, is a freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). He is an aspiring filmmaker who specializes in working with stop motion animation. His latest stop motion animated short film, “The Tree That Refused To Fall,” won viewer’s choice award at the It’s My Life Atlanta Youth Film Festival.

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