Movie review: 'The Birth of a Nation' tells slavery story with remarkable impact

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" arrives in theaters with layers of both relevance and controversy, and it may be impossible to judge the film without those filters.

In the time since the film wowed audiences at Sundance and started a studio bidding war, a 1999 rape allegation leveled against the filmmaker while he was a student at Penn State has come to the forefront.

Likewise, the film's subject matter of the racial underpinnings of antebellum South seems a highly relevant topic in modern America for reasons that should be patently obvious.

So given my unenviable task of trying to parse all this and look at the film by itself, I find it an often powerful debut that also bears the flaws of a first-time director.

The story begins in Virginia in 1809 with a young Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa), a slave boy who shows an uncanny aptitude toward reading. The wife of the plantation owner encourages and instructs the boy, but with limits. "These books are for white folks," she indicates. "They're full of things your kind wouldn't understand."

We move forward - via a dissolve that passes years spent in a cotton field - to a grown Turner (played by Parker; he also wrote the screenplay), who is wise beyond his years and a natural preacher. His master (Armie Hammer) - a more humane slave-owner, if there is such a thing - soon pads losses from a tough crop by renting Turner's preaching services to other plantations.

We follow Turner as he meets and falls in love with his wife (Aja Naomi King), as well as his first-hand view of the brutality of slavery that turns him from a preacher to the leader of one of the largest slave rebellions in the South.

The weight of the subject matter leads to an approach that is sometimes weakened by its convention. Its tone can range from Oscar-caliber to occasional TV movie tropes (and, no, not on the level of "Roots").

Still, a grave depiction of slavery's everyday situations packs a hefty punch, and there are moments where the emotion is overwhelming. Looking into the mirror of this past shouldn't be anything less.

Even if you look past Parker's past - which is particularly difficult during several scenes - there are flaws, but it's still a solid debut and a timely film.

"The Birth of a Nation"

Opens Thursday

3 stars out of 4