THE BIRTH OF A NATION (USA/15A/120mins)
Directed by Nate Parker. Starring Nate Parker, Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Aja Naomi King
THE PLOT: In Virginia, before the US Civil War, Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a slave owned by the relatively lenient Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), leads a short lived rebellion against slavery after he sees too much cruelty visited on his kinsmen.
THE VERDICT: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a strange sort of film; presented as the story of a man who wanted to right wrongs, the film is based on the life of Nat Turner, a man who reportedly saw visions and whose spirituality and religion juxtaposed with the murders he instigated and carried out has been compared with that of modern day religious violence. As well as this, the film has been shrouded with controversy since it was first screened at Sundance earlier this year, and with a title taken from DW Griffith’s film of the same name, it seems what writer / director Nate Parker, and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin wanted to court that controversy in some ways.
Nate Parker has cast himself in the lead role of Nat Turner, and it is often hard to tell if Parker is a strong actor or not. Parker’s portrayal of Turner swings from him being meek and gentle, to violent and vitriolic, to seemingly mentally incapacitated, often within one scene. Armie Hammer does a lot better with the role of Samuel Turner, and the character’s progression on screen is arguably the most interesting thing about the film. The rest of the cast features Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union.
There has been a lot of talk about Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin’s screenplay for ‘The Birth of a Nation’, and although there are changes made from the real life Nat Turner’s life, the most troubling thing about the screenplay is it’s languid, slow pacing. There are scenes of great violence – although what could be considered one of the most upsetting scenes takes place off camera – but the greatest crime that ‘The Birth of a Nation’ commits is being dull. Much of the film is taken up with Nat Turner witnessing events of great cruelty and oppression, but although the audience may turn away at the representation of this on screen, Turner does not seem greatly affected by what he sees while touring the county as a preacher, until violence comes to call on his own door, then everything changes. As well as this, it seems as though we do not really ever get a chance to know Nat Turner as a character, although the choice to reduce the man’s religious predisposition from what is known of the real man is probably a wise choice.
As director, Nate Parker should not have cast himself in the lead role; not only is Turner the least interesting character on the screen, but it is obvious that Parker did not give enough consideration to his co-stars. As well as this, the film is badly paced and slow, with not enough focus being given to the short-lived rebellion nor its aftermath.
In all, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a mediocre film about a man who tried and failed to instigate change. There are issues with pacing and performance in the film, but the main crime ‘The Birth of a Nation’ commits is being dull. Controversy has definitely been courted with The Birth of a Nation, but drawing ironic parallels with DW Griffith’s is indulgent and unnecessary, and the controversy that has sprung up around the film is unlikely to encourage many to see it.
RATING: 2/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    Snapped up for a record $17.5m by Fox Searchlight at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, The Birth Of A Nation has since been caught up in controversy regarding writer/director/actor Nate Parker. Whatever the offscreen issues surrounding Parker’s personal life (and they are serious) the film should be judged on its own artistic merits, of which it has plenty.

    It’s based on the true story of Nat Turner, a black slave in antebellum America who decided enough was enough and rose up against his white masters. Beginning in Virginia in 1809, we meet the young Nat (Tony Espinosa) as he finds himself a slave working on a plantation under his seemingly fair master Samuel (Armie Hammer) and his mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). Later on, we meet the adult Nat (Parker), now a literate man and a preacher. He’s a quiet man who encourages Samuel to buy Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Nat falls in love with her and they marry. Nat is used by Samuel to preach and quell disquiet on other plantations. But things turn sour when Cherry is attacked and raped by a group of white men. Something boils up and seethes in Nat, a rebellious spirit seeking justice. When Samuel condones the rape of a female slave by one of his guests, Nat leads a rebellion against every white plantation owner. God may be righteous, but he’s also full of wrath…

    D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic The Birth Of A Nation is something of a masterpiece of early cinema. However, it also has to be said that it’s a tainted masterpiece – given it’s shameful racism and deeply questionable depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Parker has reclaimed the title for his own film, a bold and strident move towards reparation. The film is a deeply moving depiction of how one man dealt with his cruel time, when human slavery was an everyday fact rather than something to be ashamed of. In that sense, it’s similar to 12 Years A Slave. It won’t be to everyone’s taste then, as this is a film that will provoke anger and shame at past generations. But for those willing to go on its troubled journey through America’s past, The Birth Of A Nation proves to be a powerful piece of cinema with a very clear voice. It’s a protest cry for humanity, equality and fair treatment – decades before slavery would be abolished in America.

    It’s all the more powerful given that it’s Parker’s feature debut. He shows great determination and confidence in his direction, slowly building up the rage in his character as he watches the injustice around him. Why would God allow such injustice to exist? He also shows great command of his script, from a story he co-wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin. There’s an undeniable power to it – much like the much-older true story of Spartacus. Nat Turner’s rebellion was much smaller in scale, but no less louder in voice. The quiet desperation of Turner’s situation grabbed this reviewer by the soul, rather than the heart-strings. There’s no manipulation or false sentiment here. The performances are all strong, with Parker a quiet but commanding lead. The Birth Of A Nation would make a good double bill with Glory, but it stands on its own two feet, fiercely proud and soulful. Whatever it’s fate at the Oscar nominations due to the offscreen controversy, this is an important film that demands to be seen. ****