The Birth of a Nation: What You Need To Know
Even amongst the many complex and controversial figures that populate the landscape of American history during the years of slavery and civil war, Nat Turner remains one of the period's most divisive figures. Depicted on several occasions over the years in novels, non-fiction literature, documentaries and films, Turner's story has been told in many ways, with one telling often diametrically opposed to the next.
There are aspects of Turner's story that all sources agree on: born into slavery in 1830 in the Southern County area of Virginia, Turner grew up to become a literate priest who led a slave rebellion that left somewhere between 50 and 65 white people dead, before he was eventually executed by hanging in 1831. But with little concrete evidence about his life and motivations, Turner has been alternately cast by historians as a bloodthirsty thug and a revolutionary hero.
The Birth of a Nation is very much in the latter camp and attempts to tell the definitive story of Turner's life and his role in the uprising that led to his death. Not to be confused or associated with D.W. Griffiths' highly controversial 1915 film of the same name, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival and was tipped as an early Oscar favourite, but the film's promotion was marred by an entirely separate controversy surrounding a historic rape trial involving the film's director, which almost certainly scuppered the film's chances of gaining recognition at the Academy Awards.
On Monday (April 17th) the film finally arrives in stores on DVD and Blu-ray (you can order your copy at at the to-right of this page). Here's everything you need to know...
Who's in it?
Nate Parker takes on the lead role of Nat Turner, supported by a cast that includes Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union and Mark Boone Junior.
And who's directing?
The film is also a directorial debut for its lead actor, Nate Parker, based on a screenplay written by himself.
What's the plot?
The film charts Nat Turner's life, from his beginnings as a young boy with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for reading and writing. The deeply religious Turner would often experience visions which he interpreted as messages from God, and by his twenties he had earned himself the nickname 'The Prophet', conducting Baptist services and preaching the word of the Bible to his fellow slaves.
Turner's 'owner', the plantation-owning Samuel Turner (Hammer), is struggling financially and agrees to let turner help him control some of the more unruly slaves at several plantations across the southern states, hoping that his preaching will bring their behaviour into line. But as Nat Turner travels from one plantation to the next he witnesses multiple abuses of their respective slaves at the hands of their white overseers, eventually becoming convinced that God has handed him a divine mission to rise up against their captors and overthrow them by any means necessary.
What follows is a brutal and bloody struggle between Turner's band of rebels and the authorities that would see the rebels kill in excess of 50 white people, mostly wealthy landowners, and retaliatory actions that would see more than 100 black people slain, many of whom were not even involved in the rebellion. A climactic battle ensues that sees Turner literally fighting for his freedom and his life, knowing that defeat and capture will almost certainly lead to his death.
Does it deliver?
Leaving aside the controversy surrounding Nate Parker's past, The Birth of a Nation was always going to be a polemic account of a controversial historical figure and, on merit alone, Parker does a fine job of producing an emotive and unapologetic biopic of a key player in the battle against slavery.
Some historians will no doubt debate the accuracy of the film's portrayal of Nat Turner's actions, but this is nevertheless a passionate and powerful account of his life and deeds that features some excellent performances from its talented cast.