First Hit: A great story that was overproduced, excessively long, and poorly directed.
This is a great story but as often happens, when someone writes, directs, and acts in their own film; their perspective and the film's pacing results in a muddled story. The long languished scenes were meant to develop his and other characters but only left me marginally engaged in this wonderful story of how one slave helped to birth a nation.
Nate Parker plays Nat Turner a slave to Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) in the South when the freedom tide began to turn and cotton growing was waning partially due to a drought. As far as plantation and slave owners goes, Turner was relatively kind and wasn’t constantly sadistic towards his slaves as we witness in this film. His sister Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) saw Nat’s native intelligence and taught him to read, but only the Bible because “…these other books are for white folk.”
By learning to read from the Bible, Nat becomes a natural preacher and begins to hold religious services for other slaves. His ability to read and evoke passion was respected by both the white and black communities.
To give the audience a sense of the injustice, there are scenes with slave hunters led by Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) who roamed the land raping, hurting, or killing slaves caught without a written pass from their owner. As this story develops, the more injustice Nat sees. And with the rape and beating of his own wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) by Cobb, Nat gathers a few slaves to begin a revolt.
Many of the scenes are graphic and difficult to watch. During one scene in particular when a plantation owner uses a chisel to knock out the teeth of a slave because he won’t eat, I just about walked out. I understand the reason to make scenes like this, however it could have been done with less visual and maintained the important message. Although, I’m very distressed about the racism that remains in our country today, I’m not sure the film did itself service by showing graphic scenes of torture to make a point.
The parts of the film where the audience waits for something to develop which were followed by an action, were difficult to sit through. I don’t like the feeling of waiting in a film. Some of the highlights of the film were the wonderful support and love shared by his mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis) and grandmother Bridget (Esther Scott). One amazing scene was the calm clear tranquility Bridget showed as she sewed stitches in Nat’s back from a recent whipping.
Parker was very strong as Nat, however his meandering direction of the screenplay he wrote didn’t do this story justice. Hammer was OK as the bachelor plantation owner. Miller was good in her minor role of Hammer’s sister and someone who seemed to care about the slaves. Haley was very good in a role that just reeked of being despicable. Ellis was very good as Nat’s mother and woman who had to hold the family together when her husband was forced to flee the plantation. Scott was sublime and in her minor role and delivered a very strong and amazing performance.
Overall: I was disappointed in this film because the real story is excellent.