UK Release Date: 9th December 2016
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Nate Parker
Writer: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Junior
Synopsis: An enslaved man, shocked by the way black slaves are treated by their white owners turns from obedient preacher to the ringleader of a bloody and violent rebellion.
When it first debuted in a blaze of headlines at Sundance earlier this year, The Birth of a Nation looked set for awards glory. The film was touted as the answer to the annual #OscarsSoWhite controversy and a ballsy counter-move to the famously Klan-sympathetic DW Griffith film of the same name. Later in the year, allegations of rape against writer-director-star Nate Parker from his college days, for which he was acquitted, emerged and tainted the buzz around his work. It is against lukewarm reviews that the film receives its UK release and it is certainly an honourable, even admirable, film, but it’s not one that hangs together as a work of cinema.
Nat Turner (Parker) is marked out at an early age by slave owners as being uncommonly intelligent and is taught to read by his masters as a child. When Nat becomes older, plantation owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) uses him as a preacher both to keep his own slaves under control and quell talk of a rebellion in the immediate area. Nat stays in line until he witnesses a series of horrible atrocities perpetrated against his fellow slaves. He then orchestrates a bloody uprising in which he encourages fellow slaves to join his rebellion against his white owners.
There’s a lot to appreciate about The Birth of a Nation. The story is an important one, focusing squarely on one man driven to make a change by the horrors surrounding him. Nat Turner is played ably by Parker and the film is strongest when it relies on Parker’s acting talents to tell the story. It’s clear throughout that Parker’s portrayal of Turner is that of a man forced to live within the system and conform in order to survive, despite the voices within him acting as a constant reminder that the world is not fair and that his people are consistently persecuted.
Unfortunately, Parker’s acting flair is not matched by his ability as either a writer or a director. The script is often packed with clichéd dialogue and the direction is self-consciously arty, using imagery and symbolism when something a little more overt would have made the story a touch more potent. The Birth of a Nation is not a film that has urgency or realism. It moves slowly and deliberately for much of its running time, but loses its patience in the third act as it rushes into the action-packed insurrection of the finale, which is over all too quickly and robbed of its climactic feel.
Parker also suffers in the way in which he depicts violence. One of the greatest strengths of Steve McQueen‘s Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave was its genuinely visceral scenes of brutality from white slave owners against black people. This is something Parker is unable to depict effectively, with his violence akin to a low-rent impersonation of Quentin Tarantino at his most stylised. As strong as Parker is as an actor, a guiding hand on his shoulder behind the camera feels as if it would have made this better from the perspective of cinematic craft and visual panache.
There are flashes, however, of real brilliance in the film. A haunting sequence late in the film is set against the backdrop of Nina Simone’s version of ‘Strange Fruit’, leading to a tableau that has an absolutely chilling effect more powerful than anything else in the film. Unfortunately, though, these moments are the exception rather than the rule and, overall, The Birth of a Nation is a rather unconvincing film. This is a story that does need to be told, but it needs to be told better than this.
Pop or Poop?
Nate Parker proves to be a far more effective actor than he is a filmmaker in The Birth of a Nation, which is a movie that doesn’t live up to the buzz and hefty price tag it attracted when it first saw the light of the day. It’s a solid showcase for Parker as an actor, but one that proves he isn’t up to scratch behind the camera. It has moments of stunning brilliance but, for the most part, it’s a rather pedestrian slog through a story that deserves a far better film.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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