The new film “The Birth of a Nation” has, beyond its title and a horrific look at slavery in the 19th century South, nothing to do with D.W. Griffith’s century-old “The Birth of a Nation.” The current film centers on the woes of plantation life before the Civil War; the older film focuses on the Civil War and its aftermath.

So, no, this is not a remake of that racist, hard-to-watch movie. But, somewhat disappointingly, neither is it the groundbreaking, hard-hitting film that a lot of people were hoping for.

It’s a solid drama, with strong acting and writing, but at the end, there’s a feeling that we’ve been watching a history lesson rather than a vital piece of cinema. Yet it’s very difficult to pinpoint the problem. Set in Virginia’s Southampton County, initially in 1809, life on the Turner plantation — coincidentally, Turner is the last name of the white plantation family and the black protagonist — is shown as not such a bad thing for the folks working there. In fact, the owner’s son, young Sam Turner, regularly plays with Nat Turner, the son of two slaves.

Many things go very badly for a lot of people in this movie, and the first is when Nat’s dad is caught stealing food, a crime punishable by death, which the boy witnesses. But soon afterward, when it’s discovered that fatherless Nat is able to read, he’s moved into the big house by the owner’s wife, who intends to tutor him, but only using a bible, not the “white people’s books” in the library. Alas, this special treatment lasts only until, on his deathbed, the owner insists that the boy work in the fields picking cotton.

A couple of decades pass and Sam (Armie Hammer), now in charge, has a reputation for treating his slaves well, and has remained friends with Nat (Nate Parker). Though still a slave, Nat has also taken to preaching to his fellow slaves — a natural ability combined with all of that bible reading — and has become Sam’s right-hand man. It’s Nat, during a visit to a slave market, who convinces his master to buy a young, downtrodden woman named Cherry (Aja Naomi King). What’s not clear to Sam is that Nat is immediately attracted to her. But the deal is done, and Cherry is given to Sam’s sister-in-law at a plantation down the road.

For anyone not seeing it right away, yes, a tender romance will blossom. But first, the film gives us an idea of plantation life, at least at decent Sam’s place, where his workers pick cotton, snap peas, sweep porches and doctor each other.

But that’s about all of the pleasantries the film offers. Sam’s plantation takes a downturn in prosperity. A visit by the gin-swilling Reverend Walthall (Mark Boone Junior) leads to the idea of having Nat preach at other plantations, first to get mistreated slaves to be put at ease over their suffering, and second for money from the owners, to help Sam get out of debt and maybe restore his place to its old glory.

The film’s most powerful moments ensue in an onslaught of horrific events, ranging from Nat’s eye-opening realization of how slaves are treated on other plantations — his preaching there is done through the tears in his eyes — to the results of a beating given to Cherry while he’s on the road preaching. When things get even worse, Nat finally can’t take it anymore. He organizes a small secret meeting between slaves to discuss an uprising “when the Lord gives us a sign.”

This is a film dealing with people in conflict, with others around them and in their own heads. Nat must face it and, in a whole different way, so must Sam. The events can quickly turn brutal, and the film often seems heavy-handed, but it also comes across as a study in spirituality. When the rebellion starts and killing begins, there’s no turning back, and students of history will know the fate of Nat Turner. At the end credits, there’s a sinking feeling due to the fact that all that has been shown has happened a full three-misery-filled decades before the Civil War.

— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

“The Birth of a Nation”
Written and directed by Nate Parker
With Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Junior
Rated R