W.D. Griffith's nearly three hour silent film "The Birth of a Nation" was the highest grossing silent film ever produced. It introduced some new filming techniques and created quite a controversy. In fact, it is singularly responsible for the 1915 re-organization of the Ku Klux Klan from it's dormancy. It was so powerful in its support of racism, that the NAACP attempted to get the film banned, but to no avail.


Nate Parker's first effort at directing a feature length narrative has been surrounded by controversy, but not for the story or production values. Instead, it surrounds the director himself concerning a statement he made about an incident in 1999, that was at the very least misogynist.


What could have and might have been a soul stirring provocative film, suddenly takes a back seat to external affairs; so much so there is a rift within the ranks of the cast and director. Don't count on his newest film to incite the resurrection of the Black Panther Party... it will not.

Even without the controversy, Parker's version of "Birth of a Nation" does not build the gut wrenching sorrow and anger that Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" did a couple of years ago. The narrative is to clumsy as Parker gleaned a script from the various biographies of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner and history books. More damaging was his use of two rape scenes that may or may not have occurred - there is no record of them, but that doesn't mean they didn't happen. Whenever the story got caught in a rut, as it were, Parker tossed in a rape scene.


Much like Jack Nicholson's last time sitting in the director's chair, "The Two Jakes", Parker never misses a scene! He is in just about every scene or at least not far from it. One of the reasons' Clint Eastwood has been successful at directing himself, he understands how to take a step back and feature the other talent. Maybe Parker will figure that out or not, after all this is his biggest role to date.


The film covers slave rebel Nat Turner's life from his childhood in Southhampton County Virginia; in fact he spent his entire life in Southampton.

Parker does manage to surround himself with a great cast of support actors who ranged from Aja Naomi King as his wife Cherry, Armie Hammer and Penelope Ann Miller who play Nat's owners, Jackie Earle Haley who played a hateful slave hunter and Mark Boone Junior who played a corruptible white preacher.


After inheriting his father's plantation, Sam Turner (Hammer) quickly runs the plantation into debt. After noticing Nat had learned to read the bible, local white reverend Zalthall (Boone Junior) suggests Sam rent his educated slave out to other plantation owners and have him preach to them; that would quiet a building storm of revolt. The idea worked for a minute.


But after seeing how the slaves were still treated and after an assault on his wife, Nat decides to gather the slaves and revolt by killing the slave owners in their area. We already know how that turned out. But what is missing in the film is development of some of the other characters, how the plantation got into so much debt, and even the aftermath of Nat Turner's execution - which was pretty gruesome.


Instead, Parker lingered on incidents that may or may not have happened and used them as a plot device whenever the narrative started falling off. Instead of being merely the story of a failed rebellion, it could have been a shocking story of survival, love, brutality and a morbid reprisal that lead to civil war.


Given Earle Haley's sicko performances in "Little Children" and "Watchemen", it would have been fun to let him cut loose as a sicko racist to really get the audience involved. It's the kind of role he would have found challenging and relished. The

same can be said about Union and Naomi King; why show the aftermath of brutality without at least a solid lead into the brutality.


"Birth of a Nation" is definitely a film worth seeing and has some good film-making moments, but it is not nearly as good as it could have been or as it thinks it is. It illustrates the life of an often forgotten human rights activist who caused a stir, if only for a moment.   -- GEOFF BURTON