AM Turner’s chest leaves a trail of blood on the wooden floor. He uses his elbows to crawl, slowly, into the hallway and away from the bed where Nat Turner (Parker), the slave he inherited from his father, has just taken an axe to his body.
The lines made by the blood of Sam (Hammer) would make both Jackson Pollock and Quentin Tarantino blush. But that art is second only to something that rests between Nat, on his feet, staring Sam, on the ground, down.
That something is an image of a white cross illuminated on stained glass.
Although we are about halfway through The Birth of a Nation – which is set in the 1800s and based on a true life story – that moment is significant because both these men’s fates meet at the cross.
Upon discovering that a young Nat can actually read, Sam’s mom snatches the boy from the care of his mother, Nancy (Ellis) and grandmother, Bridget (Scott) and moves him into the slavemaster’s house. He is barred from reading anything but the Bible and is quickly groomed into a preacher who also picks cotton six days a week.
Sam, on the other hand, doesn’t care much for the Gospel unless it’s putting a coin into his coffers. Instead of the Bible, Sam rests his faith in the privilege the colour of his skin buys him and the protection the church affords slave owners whose property can multi-task.
As history tells us, that moment when all Nat and Sam have between them is the cross becomes the beginning of a slave rebellion – led by Nat – that results in the massacre of about 65 white people. In retaliation, about 200 black people are killed.
This film, not to be confused with the films that were released in 1915 and 1983, unfolds in two parts. The first is the genesis of Nat’s realisation that he has a gift for interpreting the word for his people. The second part is the revelation that he should be using it to free them. A scene from an American period drama based on the story of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
As Parker tells us – through Nat speaking to the five fellow slaves he starts the revolution with: “Slaves all over are having meetings. They waiting on something. They waiting on us.” It’s difficult to separate this declaration – said fireside on a dark night for dramatic effect – from Parker’s own sentiments.
Parker stars as the messiah whose coming all slaves have been waiting for. But he also directed, produced, co-wrote the story and the screenplay and provided the catering. Okay, so we’re joking about the food, but Parker’s saviour complex really led him to have a hand in everything to do with this film.
By now, you have probably heard the allegations that Parker and his friend and The Birth of a Nation co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin, raped a woman when they were in college. The woman killed herself in the 17 years since the alleged incident occurred. This matter resurfaced just as Parker was about to debut his biggest Hollywood moment.
It’s challenging to not go into the cinema with that accusation in mind. Especially because rape in the slave era was commonplace. But if you can manage it, you will see that the film is rich with thoughtprovoking imagery.
The weight of the message carried through a shot of a pair of kids playing – with a white girl leading a black girl on a noose-turnedleash – is juxtaposed with their smiling faces and whimsical music.
Speaking of music, if you can, for a moment, suspend the idea that the man on the big screen in front of you was accused of rape, you’ll hear something more chilling. It’s incredibly predictable to insert Nina Simone’s version of Strange Fruit into a film about slaves, but here it is placed in a significant, richly textured spot.
If you can look beyond what’s happening in the real world, you will also see that the only thing holding the world on celluloid back is Parker himself. The Birth of a Nation is obviously the great work of his life (up until now anyway). And he was intent on becoming a hagiographer that would also be relevant in a post-Black Lives Matter world.
But then he should’ve just directed the movie. Parker’s Nat constantly has a pained expression on his face, even when he is telling his wife, Cherry (a role in which King shines) sweet nothings and expressing joy. It’s not an underlying pain, either.
It’s gritted teeth, lip curled up on one side and crying eyes – all the time. And he’s in the film – you guessed it – all the time. King, Ellis (when will she stop playing a slave, though?) and even Gabrielle Union, are strong actresses because of their skilled restraint.
But Parker may have crossed his heart, hoped for the best and wasn’t able to see where he erred because he was the messiah he’d been awaiting. While this is not necessarily his death knell, Parker didn’t make a believer out of me.