Like Nat Turner, the protagonist of his “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker dreamed a mighty dream.
Turner, the leader of an Aug. 21, 1831, slave revolt, the most successful in American history, dreamed of ending the institution of slavery once and for all. Less than three months later, he was hanged and his body defiled.
Parker, a successful actor and the film’s writer, producer, director and star, dreamed of making a historical epic that portrayed a black man as a universal revolutionary hero who stood up for freedom and liberty, very much like William Wallace in Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.”
It would be a film that would confront the horrors of slavery and help foster a national discussion on its still festering legacy. Parker so believed in this mission he put his acting career on hold for years to get the project done.
But perhaps fitting for a story of rebellion, “The Birth of a Nation” (intentionally turning the title of the racist D.W. Griffith classic on its head) is a film in some ways at war with itself, a film where execution clashes with intentions.
Turner, of course, is a figure who has seemed to invite controversy almost forever, with William Styron’s 1967 novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” for instance, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and opprobrium for its author for distorting history.
Currently “Birth of a Nation,” after a sensational debut at Sundance, where it won both the dramatic grand jury prize and audience award, has become embroiled in the aftermath of a rape accusation and acquittal from Parker’s past.
Like any artistic endeavor, however, the film deserves to stand on its own merits, and that verdict is incontestably mixed. It’s an oversimplification to say everything is good about this film but the film itself, but there are times it feels that way.
On the positive side, “Birth of a Nation” is admirably ambitious, and in today’s risk-averse climate it is an accomplishment simply to get the film of this scope made with its story and point of view intact.
You also have to admire the passion and emotionality Parker brought to “Birth of a Nation,” how deeply felt his performance and every frame shot by cinematographer Elliot Davis is.
But emotional filmmaking runs the risk of being overdone, and that is a problem here. While there is agitprop fervor to spare in “Birth of a Nation,” situations tend to be presented in strokes so broad and ungainly they do not always resonate as deeply as they might.
This lack of subtlety is most evident in the characterizations, especially those of the film’s almost invariably clichéd and morally bankrupt white people. Even if these overwhelmingly sadistic, perfidious folks are historically accurate, they do not make for dramatically effective characters.
“Birth of a Nation” starts with an appropriately ominous quote from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
The drama itself begins in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1809 with Nat Turner as a boy (Tony Espinosa) getting taken by his mother, Nancy (a moving Aunjanue Ellis), to a midnight ceremony deep in the woods where a diviner speaking in an African language notes marks on Nat’s body and announces that the boy is a prophet who should be listened to.
Though Nat and young Sam, the son of the plantation owner, play together as equals, this is no multiracial paradise, as Nat finds out when his father, Isaac (Dwight Henry), gets into a fracas with implacable slave patroller Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) and has to flee for his life.
The owner’s wife, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), one of the few whites with quasi-progressive thoughts, helps teach Nat to read, though she does make him stick to the Bible because other books were “full of stuff your kind wouldn’t understand.”
The adult Nat works in the fields and preaches on the side. The slimy, venal Reverend Wathel (Mark Boone Jr. of “Sons of Anarchy”) suggests to the adult Sam (Armie Hammer) that he could earn some ready money by renting Nat out to preach acquiescence to other slaves, which is how we get to see a litany of revolting horrors other owners resort to.
Much sweeter, though it begins with an appalling slave auction scene, is the relationship between Nate and Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King), the woman he ends up marrying, especially effective because the convincing actors nail the key moments.
Though Nat starts out believing in people’s goodness, the horrors he witnesses, the depredations that are visited on Cherry Ann and her friend Esther (Gabrielle Union), make him come to believe that, contrary to what he’s been told, the Bible demands that he seek freedom for his people, even if shedding blood is the only way forward.
While Parker’s acting as Turner is convincing, by taking on directing, producing and writing as well, he may have stretched himself too thin. “The Birth of a Nation” certainly has the power of conviction, but the grace of art escapes it.
MPAA rating: R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.
Running time: 2 hours
In general release