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When it works, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ packs intense power

Nate Parker as Nat Turner in "The Birth of a Nation." | Fox Searchlight

Perhaps you’ve seen the TV ads for “The Birth of a Nation” juxtaposing present-day news footage of the “Black Lives Matter” movement with scenes from this historical drama about the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion in 1830s Virginia.

It’s effectively straightforward to the point of being blunt and heavy-handed, and the same could be said of filmmaker/star Nate Parker’s intense and sometimes searing movie. Parker reaches with both hands for greatness and falls short — but this is nevertheless a solid and strong and valuable piece of work.

In an extended prologue sequence set in early 19th century Virginia, young Nat Turner (a wonderfully expressive Tony Espinosa) is a preternaturally bright and inquisitive child who becomes a favorite of Eliza Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), the matriarch of the family-owned plantation. Eliza takes Nat under her wing — moving him into the main house for a while, teaching him to read, even dressing him in nice clothes for Sunday services, where he recites passages from the Bible while Eliza looks on approvingly.

There’s a genuine kindness (with limits) to Eliza, but Parker never lets us forget this is all steeped in an unconscionable foundation. (When Eliza first brings young Nat into the library, she steers him away from books “his kind” wouldn’t understand and hands him the Bible.) We’re constantly reminded, as we should be, the Turners literally own Nat and his family.

They’re just nicer to their property than most of their neighbors.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and here’s Parker — a charismatic and instantly likable screen presence — as Nat Turner, still enslaved on that plantation, though he remains a favorite of Eliza and her grown son Samuel (Armie Hammer), who of course has known Nat since they were children.

At times it almost feels as if Sam and Nat are friends. Almost. But when Nat gets a little too independent or Sam needs Nat to know his place, we’re given ugly reminders of the true dynamic of their relationship.

Parker the director aims high with dream sequences in which the young Nat is reminded of his African roots but also confronted with the horrifying evil that exists in his everyday world. The attempts at disturbing poetry are ambitious, but not always effective. (And fantasy images of an angelic figure in Turner’s life as an actual angel are almost amateurishly obvious.)

Whereas the plantation families in “The Birth of a Nation” are headed by cruel tyrants who booze themselves into stupors and think nothing of raping slaves for their own amusement (the wives stand by, willing themselves into obliviousness), the slave communities support one another, respect family, truly believe in God and honor love. Parker and Aja Naomi King as his bride, Cherry, have a lovely, touching and sweet chemistry.

With farms throughout the area reeling from economic hard times, and plantation owners finding it increasingly difficult to keep their slaves in line, Samuel jumps at a business proposition from a sleazy reverend (Mark Boone Junior): Sam can take Nat from plantation to plantation, and Nat can preach from the Bible, using passages that reinforce the practice of slavery. (“Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling…”) In other words, they’ll listen to one of their own.

Plantation owners will pay a pretty penny if Nat can help motivate his fellow slaves and quell even the thought of rebellion.

Thus begins a parade of grotesque horrors, with each plantation owner more vicious, more sadistic, more animalistic. Parker’s camera dares us to look away, but we shouldn’t. We should be shocked, horrified, appalled.
Nat’s compliance disappears. He finds other passages in the Bible — passages that encourage him to seek justice by any means necessary.

When Turner transitions from passive, quietly effective preacher to a fiery, raging voice of action, Parker chooses to demonstrate this by amping up the volume big time — and it works, but only to a certain degree. Parker doesn’t have the oratory might and flourishes of world-class actors such as a Denzel Washington or a Daniel Day-Lewis — or even someone like Mel Gibson in “Braveheart. (At times “The Birth of a Nation” is just as violent and brutal as Gibson’s film.)

The short-lived rebellion is filmed in gruesome detail. Plantation owners are killed in their homes. Slave hunters gun down the rebels. Flesh is torn apart by knives and swords and hatchets and bullets. Men, women and children are hanged.

And one can’t help but think about the country outside the movie theater — a country undeniably more unified and just than the United States of 1831, but a country with miles, and decades, and maybe even centuries of progress still ahead.

★★★

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film written and directed by Nate Parker. Rated R (for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity). Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.