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Movie Review

'The Birth of a Nation' is So Convincing and Powerful


In these days of mayhem and massacre on the screen, The Birth of a Nation is not as brutal as you might expect; the inevitable flogging scene is almost too gentle. But where it is brutal, it is almost unbearable: I do not wish ever to see the mercifully brief scene of dental work by hammer and chisel again.

It has bits that are almost sentimental, as when Penelope Ann Miller says, "Whip him? Nonsense. I'm going to teach him to read." But she teaches Nat Turner, played by Nate Parker, to read only the Bible, and her explanation to him that "his kind" could never understand anything else is a key to the real brutality of the movie.

For the slaves, the lack of 100 percent submission, or the slightest hint of equality with the whites can be fatal. Even the preaching of the gospel must be limited to passages ordering submission, and even children's play includes black playmates with nooses around their necks.

Unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation is so structured as to suggest that the Nat Turner slave rebellion of the early 1800s seems to be largely a matter of revenge for personal injury rather than what the title suggests, and there are moments of carelessness such as a man choking to death from a noose that is not even tight around his neck.

Nate Parker's performance even of a man who can't risk showing honest emotion is so calm that it is one of the few unconvincing elements of an otherwise powerful movie.

But the basic material is so powerful and the representation of the American slavery system is so convincing that The Birth of a Nation may well be the best movie about slavery that I've ever seen.