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Nate Parker (center) as Nat Turner

Nate Parker (center) as Nat Turner

“THE BIRTH OF A NATION” My rating: B+

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The first provocation in Nate Parker’s provocative debut feature comes with the title.

“The Birth of a Nation” was, of course, the blatantly racist (though artistically daring) 1915 silent film that President Woodrow Wilson said was “like writing history with lightning.”

Parker’s film — he co-wrote it, directed it and plays the lead role — appropriates the title of D.W. Griffith’s epic celebrating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Except that Parker’s “Birth” is more a case of writing history with dignity and sorrow.

His subject is Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who in 1831 led a two-day rebellion that left as many as 60 whites dead. In the aftermath more than 200 blacks were murdered out of fear and retaliation.

It’s a fictionalized biography that follows Turner from childhood — he grew up playing with the white boy who would become his master, and despite his slave status learned to read and became an accomplished preacher — to his death on the gallows.

As with any film set in the antebellum South, we get plenty of pain (Jackie Earle Haley plays a slave catcher who exudes toxic cruelty).

But this “Birth” is no mere wallow in atrocity. Parker devotes much of the film to depicting familes and universal experiences.

So while the screenplay by Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin follows Turner’s slow radicalization, it also deals with the tiny joys and pains of just existing.

That may be why, despite scrupulously accurate art direction, much of the movie is composed of close-ups. Parker appears obsessed here with the landscape of the human face and how it registers joy, pain, fear and yearning. Slavery cannot be blithely dismissed as a “peculiar institution” when you can look deep into the eyes of those on the stinging end of a whip.

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