“You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.” — Booker T. Washington

Steve McQueen’s 2013 “12 Years a Slave” was, as we all came to know, the true story of a well educated “free” black man who lived in New York who was kidnapped and re-chained in the south. Solomon Northrup’s story had, of sorts, a happy ending.

Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” (no relation to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film) has no light at the end. Nat Turner’s ballad begins and ends with almost no bright lyrics to soften the mordant music of this shameful passage in America’s past.

Writer/director/actor Parker holds back nothing in his depiction of the inhuman brutality and torture of black slaves by white American slave holders.

In one scene, when two slaves are chained to the wall of a pig pen and refuse to eat, their owner takes a hammer and chisel and knocks their teeth out and force-feeds them.

It’s only one of the “look away now” moments in Parker’s film.

Of course there are the ubiquitous lashings, rapes and dog attacks that black history has always shown us, but in Parker’s film, this scene and others burn.

The film begins with young Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa), clearly an unusually bright boy, taken by the hand of the unusually kind wife (Penelope Ann Miller) of his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and taught to read, particularly, of course, the Bible.

As the pampered Nat grows older, Master Turner is persuaded and financially rewarded by other plantation owners nervous about growing rebellion to trot his slave about the countryside to preach the parts of the Bible that “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters, and obey with fear and trembling.”

But as time passes, Nat, in the face of the sadistic treatment of his peers, can no longer play the humble, pious pied piper.

When he is caught baptizing a remorseful farmhand in his master’s river, he is beaten almost to death and left chained to die.

Thus a historic and doomed rebellion is born that results in a massacre of the white owners and eventually the slaves themselves.

Parker’s depiction of the incredible slaughter is graphically filmed by Elliot Davis, particularly the final battle scenes.

But the most stunning, terrifying and breathtaking scene in the film is one in which hundreds of black bodies are seen hanging in a forest of trees, as Nina Simone sings Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” made iconic in 1939 by the great Billie Holiday.

Nate Parker, a good, hardworking actor and first-time director, works zealously to put real flesh on the tortured Turner, but it must have been harder work for him to share the screen and its biggest scenes with the stunning work of Aja Naomi King, who plays his wife Cherry.

King, who up until now has been hiding in “pretty black girl” roles in television, has just been launched onto the big screen with this role.

Nate Parker’s debut film isn’t one of the great films of the era, but a damn good one that deserves Academy attention.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor and the author of “Will Write For Food.


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