**1/2 stars (out of four)
Writer/director/star Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was one of the darlings of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But his intermittently interesting film does not live up to the hype.
Parker plays Nat Turner, who led a rebellion of slaves and free African-Americans in Virginia in 1831. He spent his life on the same plantation working for the same family. As a child, he was friends with the boy who eventually became his master (Armie Hammer). One of the better elements of the film is that it does establish a real relationship between Parker and Hammer. There’s a sense that Turner isn’t simply outraged by the unjust institution of slavery, but at the personal betrayal of the man who’d been his childhood friend.
But the film tries too hard to strike an uplifting, heroic, and inspirational tone a la Glory. In reality, the story of Turner is one of dehumanizing behavior perpetuating dehumanizing behavior. Turner killed children as part of his rebellion, but the movie does not include this. Instead, it inserts scenes of other characters declaring Turner to be a prophet, even as a child. The story would have been more meaningful if he’d simply been a regular guy pushed over the edge by horrific treatment (and some scenes of slave abuse in the film are indeed harrowing) instead of a storybook-style “chosen one.”
If Hollywood really wants to do a rousing, inspirational story about from this era, they should try the story of Robert Smalls, a slave who stole a Confederate naval transport and then served as a ship pilot in the Union Navy. After the war, he returned home and purchased his former master’s house.