Nate Parker Armie Hammer Aja Naomi King Dwight Henry
The real story and this dramatization of Nat Turner is truly sad from start to finish, although many have gained inspiration from his commitment and sacrifice for enslaved blacks. In this story, the child Nat has marks on his body that are believed by the slaves to indicate he would be a prophet; and indeed he did become religious, and after the mistress of the house and mother of his playmate taught him to read, he began a ministry of sorts, in addition to his slave duties.
Nat (Parker) and his family serve a relatively kind white family, the Turners, with Nat’s playmate Sam (Hammer) eventually becoming the master of the plantation. When we see how they play together as boys (when it’s implied that Nat is smarter than Sam), and then Nat’s subservience to Sam in adulthood, it’s clear how the relationship is influenced by the slave culture.
Nevertheless, everything seems to be going smoothly when Nat talks Sam into buying a wild young female slave called Cherry (King) who, after his mother and grandmother clean her up and teach her enough to be a house slave, turns out to be beautiful. Nat falls in love with her, and they marry and have a child.
Sam’s plantation begins to run into trouble during a drought, as are many plantations in the area, and under these conditions, masters begin to tighten the reins on their slaves, which, in turn, creates a murmuring of rebelliousness. The always nervous and calculating local pastor suggests that Sam take his slave around to the different plantations for “religious services.” They will pay Sam, which will help Sam’s finances, and Nat can “preach” to the slaves about obeying their masters. Nat goes along with this until he observes unspeakable treatment of slaves at some plantations. Soon, he becomes a master of the double entendre, imparting messages that his fellow slaves interpret one way and the masters another.
Eventually, there is a major rebellion led by Nat Turner, who fervently and sincerely believes God is on his side, having given Nat signs to lead an uprising. The rest is history, and a very sad one too, unless one sees this as a turning point in American history when the custom of slavery is finally held under scrutiny.
Nate Parker, writer/director/producer, has created a compelling story that won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival where it premiered. The Prize given was accompanied by the statement: "In the words of the recently and dearly departed Alan Rickman, 'The more we're governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.’”
The story told here does not flinch from “telling it like it [was]”, as we see horrifying torments and injustice wreaked upon the slaves. I hope it fulfills its intended purpose, which is to heighten our awareness of our history and learn from it. However, I’m unsure about whether showing such cruelty makes all viewers want to be better. The film could prompt good discussions about whether retaliating violence with violence is the best way to go, versus the Ghandi approach of peaceful protest.
Parker is gifted as an actor (Beyond the lights, Red Tails, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Arbitrage), and here he shows considerable talent as a writer/director/producer. The story moves smoothly and coherently, and he has chosen an excellent cast and crew. Henry Jackman’s music has soul in scoring all the scenes, and Elliot Davis’ cinematography is poetic in capturing the mood and trauma that we witness. Aja Naomi King as Nat’s “wild one” and beautiful, honorable wife is already gathering praise for her work here after playing in numerous television roles. Armie Hammer is adept at playing a weak character not up to the job of running a business and countering the ugly pressures he faces, and must turn to drink to prop himself up.
I am aware of the recent news about an incident in Nate Parker’s life, which has detracted from the acclaim of this film. Because I do not know him or all the facts of the case, I evaluated his film on its own merits without regard to his personal history.
A graphic rendition of the Nat Turner story in all its horror.