Can there be too many movies about black slavery in America? Not as long as there are new generations to be instructed in its abominable particulars, most likely, and not as long as its corrosive legacy continues to fester. The Birth of a Nation, the new movie by actor, writer and first-time director Nate Parker, takes up the subject once again, with mixed results. In recounting the story of Nat Turner, leader of a celebrated slave rebellion in 1831 Virginia, Parker gives us most of the familiar horrors: the whippings, the lynchings, the casual rapes. But he also devises fresh images: the sight of two plantation children at play, with a little white girl happily leading a little black girl around by a noose fastened to her neck, says as much about the soul-crushing inhumanity of black bondage as the movie’s more gruesome scenes.
Unfortunately, in his determination to avoid turning the film into an exercise in pure rage, Parker has extended his story into areas of melodrama that recall the sentimental historical epics of Hollywood’s golden age. We see the young Nat, tutored by a kindly white woman, engrossed in reading a Bible by the hearth light in his family’s rough cabin. (Other books, his mentor tells him, “are full of things your folk wouldn’t understand.”) And while Parker’s depiction of the love between Turner (played by Parker himself) and a battered slave girl called Cherry (a luminous Aja Naomi King) has a sweet delicacy, it also flirts with cliché, and it slows the movie’s momentum, writes Kurt Loder.