Directed by: Nate Parker – Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union
The Birth of a Nation is not to be confused with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic, which very much glorified the Ku Klux Klan. This film is about a real person, Nat Turner (played here by Parker) a literate slave, who started a rebellion against the white slave-owners in 1831, with a band of slaves and former slaves, by his side. Director Parker has stated that he deliberately used the same title as Griffith’s in order to reclaim it.
The protagonist,Turner, was a preacher, who was encouraged in his work by his master, Samuel (Hammer) as he felt that his preaching would subdue some unruly slaves. Throughout his life, Turner had witnessed many atrocities towards his people, which caused him outrage that eventually boiled over.
When his rebellion eventually came about, it lasted less than 48 hours, but resulted in the deaths of around 60 white people. However, in the aftermath, hundreds of innocent black people were killed in revenge, and the rights of black people – both free and enslaved – were suppressed even further.
The Birth of a Nation has been a passion-project for Parker, who has tried to get this story to the screen for years. Rather than give us a two-hour slaughterfest of the rebellion, he takes us through Turner’s life from childhood, trying to show how his opinions and beliefs were formulated. The actual uprising is almost a footnote in the movie, and lasts mere minutes, but when it happens it is bloody and brutal. Unfortunately, it is over so quickly you don’t really get the full impact of it, or a real sense of how long it lasted.
In attempting to tell Turner’s story, Parker is rarely off-screen, meaning that while his supporting players do a good job, they never really get a proper look in. It feels like he is trying to dominate every scene, to reinforce the fact that this is one man’s story, but this is not always the best tack for a biopic, and it doesn’t always work here. His performance is fine, but there is almost too much of it. It’s as if he is constantly trying to reinforce how Turner’s religious beliefs fuelled the fighting, and, at times, it feels like he is trying to justify his actions!
Some of the most affecting moments in this film come directly after the battle, as we are shown innocent black people, including one striking shot of a child, hanging from trees having been lynched. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit plays underneath, and it is deeply moving. Unfortunately, you don’t always feel moved by Turner, whom Parker plays as quite steely and determined, but without the subtle nuances that truly touch a viewer.
Technicalities aside, The Birth of a Nation is a decent enough film, that documents a part of American history that many outside of the U.S. may not be aware of. It is thoughtfully filmed, and it does its best to focus on the people, and not the bloodshed – even if it doesn’t always succeed.
At times, it is too thoughtful in its attempts to convey Turner’s motivation, but The Birth of a Nation should open even more debates about violence, civil rights, and equality, which unfortunately are as necessary as ever, following recent world events.
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