Sneak Peek: The Birth of a Nation (2016)
A Fox Searchlight Pictures Presentation:
Set against the antebellum South and based on a true story, THE BIRTH OF A NATION follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher whose financially strained owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities – against himself, his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and fellow slaves – Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
Directed by Nate Parker
Screenplay by Nate Parker
Story by Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin
Produced by Nate Parker, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert, and Preston L. Holmes
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, and Gabrielle Union with Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley
Runtime: 120 minutes
For a brief discussion about how this film relates to 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation” and Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” click here!
This transcript has been lightly edited:
The Referee: Hey, listeners. Now, now, now, the Critic and I got a chance to see a Sneak Peek of a movie that is going to rock the nation, hopefully in a good way. It’s called “The Birth of a Nation,” and you’ve heard about it. It stars, written, and is directed by Nate Parker.
The Critic: And produced.
Ref: And produced. I mean, he did everything. He spent over a decade on this project. And, he stacked the deck, as far as casts go, with Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Aunjanue Ellis — I mean, good gracious, it just kinda goes on and on and on. And, the reason why I’m sort of bouncing around with this: It’s one of those movies — it’s one of those films — that you will stop, pause, and selah.
Critic: Well, I guess it’s time for me to “selah.” Let me just say this, Ref, for our podcast. We know there’s controversy. We don’t do it. (laughing) OK?
Ref: That’s right.
Critic: We focus on the work. So, the controversy is up to you; we’re going to focus on the work. We were talking about this, Ref. And, I liken what Nate Parker did in this movie to what a prosecutor does, and not a Hollywood prosecutor — a real, average prosecutor in the courtroom. And, in this case, Nate is presenting Nat Turner’s case; and we all know who stands accused. So, here we go: I’m going to break the plot down just like that, like a prosecutor. Exhibit A: Nat Turner, we know, in the beginning of the movie, is special. And, he’s special not only within African tradition — we see that he’s born with this special thing, and they have a ceremony for that — but also within American tradition. He has an aptitude for reading, and his master’s wife, played by Penelope Ann Miller — wonderfully played, actually — she encourages it. She teaches him how to read, and she encourages him to become a preacher to the slaves on the plantation. All right, so he’s special. Exhibit B: Because he’s special, he’s used. First of all, everybody, he’s not a house slave; he’s in the field.
Ref: That’s right.
Critic: And, then, his new master, who’s actually his old master’s son —
Ref: Who he played with; he had a relationship with.
Critic: Exactly. And, played by Armie Hammer as the adult version, he’s in debt. He needs to make some money. So, at this time, there’s a drought or something going on in the area of Virginia that they’re in. The masters are feeling like the slaves are on edge; they’re on edge; they want everything to be calm. So, another pastor, a white pastor (laughter), comes in — and that’s played by Mark Boone, Jr. — he comes in, and he tells Armie Hammer, “Hey, look, you should just sell out Nat. You can make money. You can get out of debt, and everything’ll be cool.” So, that’s what happens. So, he’s in the field, except for when he’s traveling with his master in a wagon to these plantations to keep the slaves calm —
Ref: By preaching to them. Mm-hm.
Critic: By preaching, that’s right. Now, Exhibit C, along with the traveling preacher: Since he’s traveling to these other plantations, he witnesses how truly vicious slave masters can be. Because, his slave master isn’t as vicious. Exhibit D! He might be special, but that doesn’t mean that he’s safe. And, neither are the people around him — the slaves around him. Because, he is punished for following the very words he’s encouraged to preach. Mm-hm. And, his family — including his grandma, played by Esther Scott, as you said; his mother, played by Aunjanue Ellis, as you said; his wife, played by “How to Get Away With Murder’s” Aja Naomi King; he has a daughter; his friends who are married, Colman Domingo and Gabrielle Union — they aren’t safe either. Things happen. OK? So, Exhibit E, the last one I’m going to give you: What’s he supposed to do? He’s a man of God. And, contrary to what the whites are saying about what’s in the Bible, he read it. OK? He read the Bible; he knows what’s in there. So, for everything they say that supports slavery, he knows there are plenty of things that do not. And, that’s where that white preacher comes in, as well. So —
Ref: Yup. And, to place on top of that, he also receives visions —
Ref: — as well. And, the real Nat Turner — because I used to teach African-American Studies — is said to, just like Harriet Tubman, receive certain visions of what his future will be and what the future of his people will be and how he will assist in moving those things forward. So, not only is he having a very natural experience, but we see he’s also having some sort of supernatural experience to really solidify his call.
Critic: That’s beautiful. Also, this isn’t about vengeance. There’s even a line in there, Ref, in the movie, where he references that. No, it’s about God’s justice, and he’s fine being a martyr. It’s not about him anymore. And, he leads his fellow slaves in an uprising, as we all know from history. And, it’s in a methodical way; we see that play out. Now, there are some things for the defense. (laughing) OK? Of course, we have the white perspective, and we have variations of the white masters and their kin: We have Jackie Earle Haley, who plays a slave catcher, for one — despicable, of course; we have that level. We have another level, which is sympathetic: Penelope Ann Miller’s wife — the master’s wife — OK, she’s not down with all of this harsh stuff. Then, we have the in-between, which is Armie Hammer’s new slave master character, who’s conflicted. You know, he doesn’t quite know what to do. We also have the main house slave, played by Robert Guenveur Smith, who goes: “Look, you’re going to get us all killed!”
Ref: Yup, yup-yup-yup-yup. I mean, that’s beautifully laid out. My take is this — it’s not quite as laid out as yours, ‘cause that plot was beautiful. My thing is this: When you go to see this movie, yes, there are some tough things to watch. But, that’s kinda like any other movie you’ve seen, dealing with a revolt or a revolution. There are some difficult or challenging concepts to process (laughing) just like every other movie you’ve seen, dealing with revolution and revolt. I liken this movie — if you like “Braveheart” —
Ref: Directed, written, produced, all of that, by Mel Gibson —
Ref: You will like “The Birth of a Nation.” Period. That’s why we have the show: “Why Watch That.” You will like this movie if you like “Braveheart” — same kind of concept. Go through the very plot line of “Braveheart,” and you will find the very plot line of “The Birth of a Nation.” You will find that the result of Mel Gibson’s character, Wallace, to revolt and to free his people from oppression is exactly Nate Parker’s and Nat Turner’s motivation for freeing his people from oppression. And, once you look at it through those lens, I believe you’ll take this movie as a film and as it is. Now, what you do with its comments and what you do with the surrounding situations with it, that’s totally in your lap. But, we’re talking about this as a film. It is well-done. Is the writing perfect? Absolutely not. Is any film’s writing perfect? No.
Ref: It’s acted well. It’s shot well. The editing was wonderful. It had an interesting texture to the movie, meaning the actual technicolor was an interesting kind of blue overtone to it. But, the sweeping views of the cotton — gorgeous. I mean, in the beginning of the film, it almost seems like a happy place to be.
Ref: Obviously, it isn’t, but Nate Parker really set you up for the end. And, that’s exactly what Mel Gibson did in “Braveheart”: He laid it out for you, for this end revolt and, then, the whole martyrism that happens, as a result of that. And, then, also, without giving away the movie, the reason why it’s called “The Birth of a Nation,” you will find out at the end of the movie why the title is.
Critic: That’s right.
Ref: And the same thing with “Braveheart.” Now, is this worth $15? I will say this: When I went to the movie theater at 42nd Street to see “Crash,” it was a social gathering of people to see something that was going on in America at the time. And, we all had an experience together. It’s going to be that way with “The Birth of a Nation.” Now, some of you are like, “I ain’t going to the movie theater to see that, ‘cause, you know, I don’t know.” Well, here’s the thing: This movie, to me, isn’t meant to be watched — for the first time — alone. Because, it can spark some sort of emotion that you just want to process it with someone. And, if you feel like, you know, you’re brave enough to go to a movie theater and to process with people, I think it’ll be a great experience for the average moviegoer. Would I pay $15 to see it? Absolutely, yes. Do I think you should? I absolutely think you should.
Critic: Yeah, and I completely agree with you. I probably will see it again in a movie theater. Let me review it, now — ‘cause I just gave the plot — quickly, ‘cause you said some beautiful stuff. This is gonna surprise a lot of people, Ref, in its presentation. Nate Parker, everybody, if you know his work as an actor: Really, what he’s done here is just taken all of that into being director, writer — all of the stuff we said — producer. He’s a thoughtful person. He has a quietness to it, and that works in this movie’s favor. So, it’s done simply; it’s done straightforward. It’s just, this is what it is, OK? It’s unforced. You talked about the shots; they’re beautiful and devastating. There’s one at the end — which I know you know what I’m talking about — it’s absolutely haunting —
Critic: — that tracking shot. Yes, it has flaws. Even, like, in the middle, some of the music, to me, I didn’t need it. But, so what? That’s not the point. And, even, at the end, I was thinking of “Glory.” You talked about “Braveheart.” Like, [at] the end, you think: “‘Glory’! Oh, my goodness.” So, whatever the flaws are, it’s immaterial, because the message is clear. And, my final point is [that] this didn’t have a big budget. And, I just want to say that I’ve been talking about this with TV, and I’m going to bring it here to film: Restrictions give filmmakers the opportunity to be creative out of necessity. So, what he chooses to show and what he doesn’t choose to show, it really adds something special to “The Birth of a Nation.” So, just as the Ref said: Definitely, definitely see this in a theater; definitely see it with people that are close to you; and you’ll have to take a few moments, when those credits are rolling, to gather your thoughts and then have a discussion.
Ref: That’s right. This comes out October 7, this week: “The Birth of a Nation” in a theater near you.