Fox Searchlight Pictures 120 minutes R
Brace yourself for possibly the most brutal movie we’ve seen to date dealing with slavery and racism. Nate Parker has written, produced, directed and starred in this passion project that puts the audience in chains, and locks onto the degradation of body and soul that was the pre Civil War South.
The story of Nat Turner's slave rebellion of 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia is an historical footnote to White America, but to Parker, bringing this story to the screen has been his life's goal. It’s very powerful, but remember, this is a feature film and not a documentary. Parker has taken factual license adding some scenes that have been criticized for not being historically accurate. However, it is a story that needed to be told.
Don’t confuse this film with D.W. Griffith’s 1925 silent era film which was love note to the Ku Klux Klan. But Parker says picking this title was intentional “to challenge racism and white supremacy in America.” The director says he ’s hoping this film will promote some kind of healing and change the way Blacks are treated around the world.
The film shows how Nat Turner was allowed to learn how to read the Bible, but not books the White people read. Armie Hammer plays Samuel Turner, his owner, who used Turner’s talent as a preacher, not only to use religion as an opiate to keep his own slaves in line, but hired him out to do the same for other slave owners. Sam Turner took the money to keep his farm going after his Daddy died.
Hammer says he was drawn into the film because of Parker’s passion and because he wants to direct some day himself. He was fascinated with how the first-time director had completely thought out every detail of every shot.
This is also a love story. On Turner’s travels with Sam, they come across a slave auction and Nat persuades Sam to buy a young woman who has obviously been mistreated. Cherry, played by the fresh-looking and beautiful Aja Naomi King, becomes his wife and they have a daughter. This is a very sweet portion of the film which sets you up to react even more to the violence coming.
As Nat Turner visits farm after farm, he sees horrors even worse than his own. Parker is unrelenting in his portrayal of people being treated as animals. The torture is very difficult to watch. It’s like watching a true-life horror movie. There are scenes where you may want to look away. Gabrielle Union, who plays Esther, the wife of a friend of Nat’s, says this is a film from a Black perspective that pulls no punches. Esther’s scene where she is ordered to have sex with one of Sam Turner’s guests, is devastating.
Parker says he played the film out in his mind over and over again so he was completely prepared, down to the minute. Penelope Ann Miller, plays Elizabeth, Sam’s mother, who discovers that Nat can read some and teaches him to read the Bible which becomes his blessing and a curse. Because of what he sees as a traveling preacher, he feels has to do something about stopping it.
Parker says he wanted to capture “the essence of an oppressed and tortured people” so we understand why Nat decided to mount a full scale battle against the slave owners. He shot that climactic scene in one day with 3 cameras. It’s terrifying.
After the rebellion is put down, It’s followed by mass lynchings. Cinematographer Elliott Davis (Twilight) should be commended, not only for the action sequence, but for one haunting camera move after the revolt. There is a lingering pull back, like a slowly moving piece of art, revealing the limp bodies of men, women and children hanging from trees and slowly twisting in a beautiful grove. That shot stayed with us. So does the rape scene which Parker is being criticized for, for two reasons. It is not an accurate part of Nat Turner’s story and there were allegations of rape against Parker as a young college man.
This is a powerful and important film. It’s especially important in light of today’s racially charged climate. Parker hopes his feature will be used as a tool in schools. The new director has proven that he knows how to make a movie. It sold for the top price ever paid for a film when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. But know that this is a hard movie to sit through for the extreme brutality you will see on the screen. Although not completely factual, there are some painful truths to see in this film.