Greetings again from the darkness. Rarely is a director’s feature film debut one that has historical and societal relevance … and certainly few first-timers would dare “borrow” the title of one of the most iconic films in cinematic history (regardless of the irony). But it seems Nate Parker may be no ordinary filmmaker. His 7 year passion project is well made, well acted and worthy of discussion.
Though the films share the title card (right down to the font), there are almost no similarities between Mr. Parker’s film and the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie. Griffith’s movie (set 30-40 years later) is known as the first blockbuster and historical epic, was the first film screened at The White House (by Woodrow Wilson), and has been studied for its advanced filmmaking techniques. It’s also notorious for the despicable portrayal of racism, and has even been credited/blamed for re-energizing the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Parker’s film is neither a remake nor a historical epic – it’s more of a biographical portrait of the most famous figure in the 1931 Southampton, Virginia uprising … Nat Turner.
This is the story of Nat Turner, but it’s clearly Nate Parker’s film. He is producer, co-writer (with Jean Celestin), director and lead actor (as Turner). Previously recognized for his acting (The Great Debaters, 2007), Parker’s passion for the story is evident. He takes creative license in some key elements (Turner’s marriage, the interracial baptism, the armory battle), but the fundamental truth that Turner was driven by his religious beliefs and visions to fight in order to free slaves is profound and ingrained in each scene.
Supporting work is solid and comes from Armie Hammer as Nat’s plantation owner and master, Penelope Ann Miller (The Shadow, 1994) as the plantation matriarch who teaches young Nat to read the bible (not the white man books), Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, 1976) as the villainous slave hunting ranch hand, Mark Boone Junior as the scheming Reverend, Gabrielle Union as a rape victim, and Aja Naomi King (“How to Get Away with Murder”) as Cherry (Turner’s wife).
Nat Turner’s uprising lasted a mere 48 hours, and resulted in the slaughtering of dozens of slave owners and their families. Of course, many slaves were also killed and the fallout was that slave owners became more wary of the possible actions of slaves … while it also provided a glimmer of hope, and generational stories, for those who remained enslaved.
Religion was a driving force in Turner’s actions, and it’s fascinating to see a movie acknowledge conflicting bible verses, and how support can be found for most any action … in this case, slavery AND the battle against it. Turner’s sermons to slaves evolve over time from a message of “obey your master” to the point where he is inspiring the uprising – all with words directly from the scripture.
The end for Nat Turner provides the end of the movie, but of course, it’s not the end of the story. One need only check today’s headlines to know that racial tensions are prevalent and that society still has a ways to go for equality and humanity for all. Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is one of the more haunting songs one will ever hear in a movie (originally recorded in 1939 by Billie Holliday), but it’s spot-on in its inclusion. A detailed song about lynching grabs our attention amongst the whippings, force-feedings, rape and other torturous mistreatment’s.
Slavery has been portrayed on screen in such films as 12 Years a Slave, Roots, Django Unchained, and Amistad. Nate Parker’s film deserves to be mentioned among these projects, and there is little doubt we will hear and see even more from Parker as a filmmaker (and actor). As a final benefit, the film reminds us to never bring a hatchet to a canon fight.
**NOTE: for those who follow the NBA, you’ll notice Michael Finley and Tony Parker are Executive Producers for the film.