November 15, 2016 -- This dramatization of the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion of 1831 combines equal parts of brutality, murder and spirituality. It is named after the 1915 D.W. Griffith epic silent film set during the Civil War. Both films are controversial, the silent film because of its pro-segregation content, the new film because of the past of writer and director, Nate Parker, who was acquitted of rape charges in 1999 (his co-defendant in the rape case, Jean McGianni Celestin, also co-wrote the film's screenplay, and their accuser later committed suicide in 2012).
This new film has a story which begins well before the rebellion, as a young Nat Turner is identified as a leader by mystical African interpretations of features on his skin. Turner (played by Nate Parker, who also wrote, directed and produced this film) learns to read and becomes a preacher, while still a slave. He is influenced by dreams and visions.
Nat's owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer of “The Lone Ranger”) agrees to allow Nat to travel to other plantations to preach to slaves, using Biblical teachings to pacify uncooperative slaves. This does not sit well with Nat, who sees the awful way some slaves are being treated.
The rape of Nat's wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King of the “How to Get Away With Murder” TV series) and the forced prostitution of a friend's wife, Esther (Gabrielle Union of “Think Like a Man”) finally pushes Nat over the edge. Nat is also viciously whipped by his master for the affront of baptizing a white man.
Nat later calls some fellow slaves together for a secret meeting to plan rebellion. He tells them that the Bible, used to justify slavery and segregation, has as many other passages which support armed slave rebellion against their owners. Nat sees bloody rebellion as a holy crusade, and he begins the revolt by murdering his master. He stirs up his followers with Bible passages.
This rebellion with hatchets, clubs and knives is deadly and merciless. The slaves move in the dark, freeing other slaves and murdering the white people (about 60 in all) they encounter. The short-lived rebellion lasts only a few hours. The rebels are defeated. The rebellion is a disaster for the slaves. Mobs and militias murder up to 200 slaves and free blacks, many of them not directly involved in the rebellion. Laws are passed to prohibit anyone from teaching slaves to read. Another law requires white preachers to be present at all slave religious meetings.
In this film, however, the rebellion is framed in a more positive, heroic light, as one of the events leading up to the Civil War (seen visually as a slave boy morphs into a Union soldier). While the movie changes many facts about Nat Turner and his rebellion, the overall story is based on fact.
This film is an graphic indictment of slavery. It also displays the evil that people are capable of when they have complete power over other people. One of the most evil characters in the film is a slave hunter named Raymond Cobb (played by Jackie Earl Haley of “Watchmen”). There are dramatic confrontations between Nat and Cobb.
The story of this rebellion (one of many such slave rebellions, dating back to a successful 1526 slave rebellion in Florida) has echoes, not only in the Civil War, but in all race relations history in America since then. It certainly has a bearing on the fear many white people have of black men. Some say all this is in the past, irrelevant, but with incendiary “white identity” media figure Steve Bannon moving into the White House next year, it appears the past is still with us.
This film is effectively written and directed by Nate Parker. The acting is uniformly strong by a talented cast. It gives us a good look into an event in history that should be remembered. This film rates a B.
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