Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” arrives in theaters Friday surrounded by so many layers of cultural onion skin that peeling them away to find the movie at the center has become an afterthought. Some of those layers leave a rotten taste. Some of them possess real bite, the kind it’s impossible to wash away. Some can bring you to tears for the victims of slavery, while some can bring you to other sorts of tears for other sorts of victims.
But there is a movie here amid the uproar and it’s worth attending to: powerful but imperfect, both a dramatization of an overlooked chapter in American history and a clichéd gloss on it. Produced, co-written, and directed by its star, “The Birth of a Nation” is very much a first film, its hesitancies disguised as bluntness, and the best things about it are Parker’s acting and his ambitions.
It’s the story of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831 Virginia, a bloody piece of US history that has rarely been addressed in popular culture. (The exception, of course, is William Styron’s 1967 fictionalized version, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” a Pulitzer Prize winner that has had its own share of controversies.)
Turner was a plantation slave and lay preacher whose uprising led to the murders of around 60 white men, women, and children in Southampton County, Va.; the rebellion was quickly put down and an estimated 200 African-Americans were murdered by whites in reprisal killings.
After early scenes showing how the young Turner (Tony Espinosa) was already marked as a leader and taught to read by his owner’s broad-minded Christian wife (Penelope Ann Miller), “Birth” jumps ahead several years to find Nat (Parker) back in the fields. His childhood friendship with Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), now running the plantation after the death of his father, has settled into more socially proscribed channels. Samuel is portrayed as a “good” master, but just barely; the pressures of keeping a business afloat and his taste for drink gradually bring the character in line with his nastier peers.
“The Birth of a Nation” is at its freshest and subtlest observing the social dynamics of the pre-war South: The masters are all one crop away from bankruptcy, the pressures fall on the slaves to produce, the failure to do so results in punishments horrible to behold. Nat is called on to preach at other plantations to calm the restive slaves; what he sees there radicalizes him (and us) even as his earnings go into Samuel’s pockets. Parker doles out the atrocities surely and steadily; he knows that finesse is beside the point.
The hero is surrounded by a bulwark of women: His grandmother (Esther Scott) and mother (Aunjanue Ellis); a wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who Nat helps rescue from the auction block and woos in a series of gauzy, formulaic scenes. Skulking around the film’s edges is a posse of slave-hunters led by Cobb — played by Jackie Earle Haley, so you know he’s bad news — whose predations lead to an assault that was difficult to watch when “Birth” premiered at Sundance and that has been judiciously trimmed back after the resurfacing of events from Parker’s youth.
(He and the film’s co-writer, Jean Celestin, were accused in 1999 of raping an unconscious college acquaintance; Parker was acquitted while Celestin later had his conviction vacated. The accuser committed suicide in 2012. If you decide you’d rather not give this movie and its maker your money, that’s your right, and you won’t be alone. If you’re skipping “The Birth of a Nation” to avoid confronting this country’s historical sins and their inevitable costs, well, that’s on you.)
I may be mistaken, but the uprising scenes feel less apocalyptic — less an all-consuming massacre — than when I saw the movie last January. Seven minutes have been cut between then and now, and while “The Birth of a Nation” remains an unyielding work of judgment, the initial bloodbath feels rushed in order to get to a climactic pitched battle against a militia of white men furious that their property is fighting back after a lifetime of abuse.
The Turner rebellion remains the bloody broken tooth of pre-Civil War abolitionism, an Old Testament visitation of vengeance that is unsparing in its wrath. A filmmaker with vision and chops — say Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) or Dee Rees (“Pariah”) — might have made it into a hallucinogenic masterpiece, “12 Years a Slave” turned inside out so that the chickens come bloodily home to roost.
Which is not to fault Parker for actually getting it done, just that the storytelling owes much to what has come before. (I doubt the movie would even be here if not for “12 Years,” both in narrative beats and as a viable commercial release.) The cast is full of good actors — Colman Domingo as Turner’s ally Hark, Gabrielle Union as Hark’s wife Esther, Mark Boone Junior as a fat old fox of a country reverend — but Parker directs them in broad strokes, with reaction shots and dramatic pauses that sometimes bring unintended laughter from audiences.
As Turner, Parker holds the screen with strength rather than depth; depth isn’t the point when you’re painting a mural. The script backs away from the historical Turner’s supposed religious visions and positions the character as a Moses who has been pushed too far, a taming that keeps Turner in line with more normative movie heroes. “The Birth of a Nation” makes its case with traumatic force but there’s a true American craziness to this story — a fire-breathing visitation of divine justice — that hasn’t made it to the screen.
Still, to take back the title of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 blockbuster — a filmmaking masterpiece and a racist mess — and apply it to Nat Turner is as audacious as cultural reclamations get. From now on, whenever “The Birth of a Nation” is mentioned, the next question will have to be “Which one?” This second one is hardly perfect, nor is its maker. But it’s here, it’s of the moment, and you could do worse than come to terms with it.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
Directed by Nate Parker. Written by Parker and Jean Celestin, Starring Parker, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Aunjanue Ellis, Gabrielle Union. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall, Coolidge, and suburbs. 110 minutes. R (disturbing violent content, some brief nudity).
Watch the trailer: