One of the hardest-to-shake images you're likely to see in a film this century is a shot found in The Birth of a Nation, the feature filmmaking debut of actor, and now writer-director, Nate Parker. In this 19th-century story of slave and insurrectionary leader Nat Turner, the camera tracks its way across a scene where an expressionless black boy holds a hand-painted sign that reads "Slaves for Sale." This stark moment has the common-sense clarity seen in the Depression Era photography of Gordon Parks, whose dignified yet often deeply ironic portraits conveyed the everyday tragedies of the black working class.
These tragedies are also a motif throughout Parker's film, which draws a line in the sand with its title. Because of that weighted title, Parker goes toe-to-toe with D. W. Griffith's legendary 1915 racist classic of the same name. In Gospel terms, Parker's Nation is the full-bodied response to Griffith's call, a piece of incendiary cinema that created an image of African-Americans that this country, and much of the movie-going world, has been grappling with ever since.
That sign-holding child—as stunning an example of self-abnegation made concrete as I've ever seen—is a running visual touchstone throughout the film, the straitened circumstances of black children of the period, whose days have been seized by white landowners before they were born. We're introduced to the story seeing the everyday terror under which Nat, as a little boy, lives. Parker shrewdly deals with slavery by making a movie not about the archetypal—and perverse—imagery of, say, a ripped brother stripped to the waist, but cannily uses children as a way to show how deeply ingrained the institution of slavery was. The sheer number of atrocities that the movie depicts may be something some can shrug off because they're so often a part of movie slave narratives, but Parker makes us dizzy, consistently uneasy because of the specter of black kids existing without prospects and growing up without light, which is reflected in the color scheme, dirty and sunless browns and grays.
The beauty, and occasional lumpiness, of Parker's vision grows out of the fact that this is a film brimming with grim-visaged vigor. It's so jam-packed that you sometimes smile despite the awful truth of the story because it's apparent that Parker, after a career that so often saw him under the hands of directors that didn't know what to do with him, was going to cram The Birth of a Nation with more thoughts, flourishes, and ideas per square inch than any ten films because God knows when—or if—he'd ever get to do it again. You end up suspecting that Parker connected with Turner's story not only because it needed to be told but, more importantly, because grinding out the kind of acting work Parker had to accept must've been akin to de facto slavery.
The audience reaction at the first Sundance Film Festival screening earlier this week—the only time in the 16 years I've been attending that I've seen a standing ovation before the movie started—was tribute to the pride and emotional investment this project demanded from its star and singular driving force. That the screening came less than a week after black America was roused from its general indifference to the Academy Awards through the organization's resumption of Do the White Thing tradition gave the audience reaction a special power. It felt to me (happily, as a person of color) as a convergence on Park City by most of the black people in the tri-state area, a rare instance of people of color having a moment of pleasure that doesn't often happen at film festivals, where often the only black thing is the artful India ink splash that's almost always used in festival introductory trailers.
A gentle, charismatic, but sometimes blank actor, Parker comes to life in this movie. I often found he was banking his fires in movies such as Red Tails because something in him refused to unleash his full resources as an actor in material that strained, and failed, at being even two-dimensional. Parker isn't a glib presence. Rather, he's someone who's able to punch up the second-rate material that has been given to him, transcending the cliché or retrograde roles with sly cool. It's not as if he's had much choice: This is, after all, a decade in which Star Wars: The Force Awakens diminishes its embrace of "diversity" by resurrecting the Scared Black Janitor as a central figure.
Unlike Force, in the story of Nat Turner, we get to see what it's like when people of color grasp their destiny with both hands. Turner brings his nation with him in a slave rebellion that wakes the country up. And like many African-American figures that instigated a call for liberation, Turner was treated as a terrorist. Yes, he led slaves into killing their masters, which strictly speaking was a crime. But then again, weren't the masters who thrived off slave labor and its rotten garden of earthly delights truly the guilty ones? Nation is sure to suffer from racist sorta-reviews on the right—Fox News could almost set up a Film Review Network just to pound this movie like a piñata on an hourly basis, and get in a few kidney punches at Black Lives Matter in the bargain.
The historic deal made by Fox Searchlight is totally exciting, and slightly inspiring—every black film success is treated as a fluke. If you think enormous critical and audience approbation mean something, just ask yourself what the folks behind Straight Outta Compton thought as they watched Brooklyn push past them for Oscar nods.
Whether the 2017 Oscars see Nate Parker garnering a few deserved nods remains, of course, to be seen. But either way, there's a glorious irony in The Birth of a Nation—it took the story of a slave to set its star, writer, and director free.
Elvis Mitchell is an American film critic and host of KCRW's nationally syndicated pop culture and entertainment show, The Treatment, since its inception in 1996.