The Birth of a Nation, 2016.
Directed by Nate Parker.
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley.
Set against the antebellum South, The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities – against himself and his fellow slaves – Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
Is it important to separate the artist from their art? This is the necessary, nay fundamental, question when approaching The Birth of a Nation, the impressively mounted feature debut from Nate Parker whose illustrious pedigree has been overshadowed in recent months following the rape allegations centered on the filmmaker and screenwriter Jean Celestin (Parker was ultimately acquitted; Celestin was convicted, only for his sentence to later be thrown out). Indeed following the movie’s barnstorming Sundance debut back in January, which immediately instigated talk of Oscars, its arrival at this year’s London Film Festival was somewhat muted.
Challenging though the circumstances are, in the interests of a diplomatic film review a dispassionate viewpoint is required and ultimately the key question is this: quite apart from the controversy engulfing Parker (further fanned by his seeming lack of empathy in interviews), does the film stand on its own terms as a piece of cinema? The answer is of the yes and no variety: commendable and powerful though the film’s vision is, Parker’s tendency towards cliché does prevent it from reach the heights it should.
Based on the true story of preacher Nat Turner’s antebellum slave uprising, the film undoubtedly suffers in the wake of Steve McQueen’s incendiary 12 Years a Slave, almost certainly the last word on big-screen slavery narratives (at least for the time being). That movie famously used a steady sense of time and space to give a sense of the years ticking by, taking their cumulative effect on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s extraordinary lead performance which seemed to become more haggard and hunched with each passing frame.
An unprecedented and intimate look at American slavery that shook audiences to the core, it sets an impossibly high bar for Parker to follow although Turner’s story is no less remarkable or deserving of dramatisation. However McQueen’s film also had the distinct advantage of being rigorously anchored to Solomon Northup’s shattering source material; Parker’s film is more speculative in nature as many of the details in Turner’s life have proven harder to verify, something that allows occasional false notes to creep in.
In contrast to 12 Years a Slave‘s inward-looking story of a freeman becoming entrapped in the horrific machinery of the American south, here we begin on the inside with Turner an educated and literate slave who has grown up within the system in the relatively privileged position of preacher. Haunted by (dramatically clunky) visions of his ancestors that foreshadow the fire eventually rising within him, Turner also remembers as a boy his father Isaac (a brief appearance from Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s Dwight Henry) fleeing from repellent slave driver Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley).
As an adult he is treated somewhat more sympathetically than the other slaves by plantation owner Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) whose mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) first instilled in Turner the power of the Bible and language at a young age. In fact the latter marks one of the movie’s more subtly handled moments, Elizabeth’s motives played ambiguously and blurring the boundary between power play and sympathy.
For all of the movie’s most commendable aspects and sincerity, there is a troubling sense of glibness that underpins its story, trite narrative choices that undermine the film’s intentions. Turner’s marriage to fellow slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King, playing a sadly underdeveloped character) is rather clumsily set up to further fuel the sense of antagonism between the latter and Earle Haley’s character, which in true Hollywood style reaches its apex during a climactic battle. The moment of sexual assault that helps to drive said showdown is where the aforementioned division between film and filmmaker becomes especially murky, although in the interests of fairness it should be said the traumatic scene largely occurs off-screen.
Later on a solar eclipse is used as a rather ill-judged harbinger of Turner’s final drive towards the uprising; although such an eclipse did indeed happen its dramatic usage pulls the movie closer towards the overblown, melodramatic territory of Braveheart, something that’s not helped by the less-than-subtle martyrdom imagery of the closing moments. And viscerally powerful though the climactic explosion of violence is (neither men, women or children were spared during the rebellion, and Parker admirably refuses to shy away), there’s a bizarre moment where the movie seems to visually ape the last-stand heroism of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, immediately breaking the spell and placing us straight back in Hollywood-land.
Nevertheless there are also scorching strengths to be found. The film really comes into its own during the central sequences in which religion is equated to profit: in a bid to quell possible violence in other slaves, Turner’s Biblical education is exploited and abused as he travels with his master to surrounding plantations to preach the gospel, something that will line the cash-strapped Turner’s pockets in the process.
It’s a brazen and uncompromising look at the hypocrisy of the 19th century Deep South, reaching its apotheosis during a brilliantly acted sequence where Turner’s previously sedate sermons, following his exposure to the horrifying realities of what’s happening, take on a sense of fire and brimstone fury, anticipating the savage violence to come during the rebellion itself and whose resonance echoes all the way down the centuries to the present day. Parker’s soulful, fiercely convincing performance as Turner himself is never better than here. The perilous fiscal situation in which the relatively benevolent Sam Turner, effectively played by Hammer, finds himself is also sensitively handled, his eventual slide into horrendous acts of cruelty stemming not from personal retribution but economic hardship.
It’s these moments that ultimately validate Parker’s vision and earmark him as a director capable of wrangling intelligent, gut-wrenching imagery alongside genuine moments of insight. Taking his own personal back story out of the equation, what we’re left with is an admirable, stirring, flawed, simplistic yet important film that undoubtedly speaks to, and indeed of, a conflicted 21st century America and the whole world.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★