A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Birth of a Nation is a highly anticipated but controversial drama about Nat Turner, who entered the history books after igniting a bloody slave revolt in 1830. While it's undeniable that Turner's actions sent a message against oppression, the fact that he relied on violence makes things more complex. And the movie is extremely violent. Characters are beaten and/or raped (happens largely off screen, but the effects of the violence are shown), and there's fighting, shooting, stabbing, and more, with lots of blood and gore, in many forms. Slaves are also whipped, hung, and tortured. Topless women are seen in both a sexual context (love scene) and non-sexual one (African tribal scene). Language includes many uses of the "N" word, plus "hell" and "goddamn." Secondary characters are shown smoking and drinking/drunk. But parents who watch with older teens will find that there's lots to talk about after the credits roll.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
In THE BIRTH OF A NATION, living on a Southern cotton plantation, young Nat Turner dreams of his African ancestors. His white mistress learns he can read and gives him a Bible. Years later, the grown Nat (Nate Parker) falls in love with a new slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and they marry. Meanwhile, Nat's master, Samuel (Armie Hammer), decides to make extra money by taking Nat to neighboring plantations to preach to the other slaves. There Nat sees the horrifying ways that other slaves are treated. When Cherry crosses paths with a sadistic white man (Jackie Earle Haley), and another slave's wife is given to a white guest as a plaything, Nat begins sowing the seeds of rebellion. His violent, bloody uprising -- which leads to the deaths of 60 white people -- will go down in history in THE BIRTH OF A NATION, even though an even more violent revenge is coming.
Is it any good?
Making his feature directing debut, Parker audaciously re-uses the name of D.W. Griffith's infamous, controversial 1915 movie -- and the result is just as significant, rousing, and imperfect. At times, The Birth of a Nation is positively brilliant, with a power like a punch to the gut. But at other times, it wallows in common cliches and routine choices. A populist movie positioned as a work of art, it's more Braveheart than 12 Years a Slave. It's an inflamed crowd-pleaser, more likely to inspire howls and cheers than thoughtful discussion. (It doesn't reach the greatness of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.)
Yet the choice of title suggests that Parker -- previously an actor in The Great Debaters and Beyond the Lights -- had at least some idea of the buttons he was pushing. He populates his movie with white characters who disproportionately awful: bad teeth, stupid, evil, violent, dirty. But it's hard to argue that, after a century's worth of black stereotypes in movies, his choices are unwarranted. Whether this Birth of a Nation earns a place in cinematic history like Griffith's remains to be seen, but hopefully it will at least raise questions that Americans will take the time to answer.
Talk to your kids about ...
Is Nat Turner a hero? A role model? Do you think his use of violence was justified? What were the consequences? How does historical perspective frame the way we look at his actions today? Do you think he had any other options?
Does the movie reinforce or undermine any stereotypes? How does it compare to other movies you may have seen about slavery in American history?
Does the controversy surrounding director/star Nate Parker (he was accused of rape in college and later acquitted) affect your opinion of the movie? If so, how? Is it possible to judge art separately from the artists who create it?
- In theaters: October 7, 2016
- On DVD or streaming: January 10, 2017
- Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King
- Director: Nate Parker
- Studio: Fox Searchlight
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Run time: 110 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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