The Birth of a Nation Review
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This year has been one of unrest for Americans, with people with different political views, races, and beliefs battling against each other—whether it’s on Facebook or in the streets. But this is nothing new—as director Nate Parker’s controversial drama The Birth of a Nation reminds us in the most brutal way possible.

The Birth of a Nation tells the story of growing unrest in 19th century Virginia, as seen through the eyes of Nat Turner (Parker), a slave preacher who was taught to read the Bible in his master’s home. As Southern plantation owners struggle to make ends meet, Nat is sent out to preach a message of obedience to his fellow slaves in the community. But as he travels from plantation to plantation, his exposure to the horrible treatment of his fellow slaves inspires him to join with others to fight back against the masters who have mistreated them.

Ever since The Birth of a Nation took the Sundance Film Festival by storm in January, audiences have been anticipating its release, bracing themselves for another gut-wrenching film about our nation’s dark past. Since then, the film has also found itself steeped in a different kind of drama over the first-time director’s own questionable past.

If you strip away the controversy, though, you’ll be left with an often deliberately paced film that’s truly difficult to watch—the heartbreaking story of a slave forced to justify plantation owners’ brutal treatment to other slaves in order to make money to help his increasingly erratic master continue to own slaves. Throughout his life, Nat witnesses injustice, abuse, and violence toward his friends and loved ones—and the things that he experiences may cause a deep, even physical reaction in viewers. It isn’t necessarily surprising—we’ve seen most of it before. But that doesn’t make it any less horrifying. And while Nat is sometimes given special privileges and responsibilities because of his own resourcefulness, as soon as he steps out of line, he learns that he isn’t really any better than any other slave.

Meanwhile, the film also manages to offer some interesting culture and perspectives. The focus is on Nat and his fellow slaves, so we see their music and celebrations and relationships. But we also see the plantation owners’ strained relationships and growing desperation. It’s more than the stereotypical film about slavery; it shows the gray areas, too.

From our own cultural context, however, it’s frightening to see this film in theaters right now, at a time when there’s already so much violence and unrest. It certainly opens an important discussion about standing up and fighting for freedom and equality, though its message is unclear. Its violence—against men, women, and children of both races—is terrifying. And while there isn’t much focus on the aftermath, that is equally frightening. One can only hope that modern-day audiences will see the horrors of this film and search for a different path.

The Birth of a Nation is a powerful though often unhurried historical drama that’s sure to stir up strong feelings in viewers. And, for those who are able to look beyond the film’s controversies, it’s also a strong, noteworthy debut from a talented young filmmaker.

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