The Birth of a Nation Review
Controversial on and off screen, Nate Parker’s slavery epic isn’t perfect, but it’s gripping, brutal and seriously powerful.
Nate Parker’s controversial film has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons for months now.The film, which shares a name with an infamously racist one by D.W. Griffith, was always going to get a fair bit of press and be divisive, but with a furore over Parker’s past and private life in the build up to its release, much of the publicity surrounding The Birth of a Nation has been less about the film and more about the man behind it. A bit of background: Parker had been planning this film for years. He raised the funds, and then wrote, directed, produced and starred in it. After its rapturous reception at the Sundance Festival, it looked all set to make film history and its auteur a doyenne of Hollywood. And then it emerged that in 1999 Parker, and Jean McGianni Celestin (who co-wrote the film’s story) were accused of rape by a classmate at Penn State University. They were also accused of launching a campaign of shame and harassment against the accuser, who committed suicide in 2012.The issue of a director’s private transgressions affecting the reception of his or her art is a deeply compelling and troubling one, and probably one for another time and place (see also: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski). That being said, there are times in watching The Birth of a Nation when it’s extremely difficult to separate Parker’s shadow from the film, particularly as rape plays a huge part in the film’s plot. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, a literate slave in 19th century Virginia who led an uprising. The film shows Turner (played by Parker) growing up from a gifted child slave to a grown-up preacher, who is enlisted by slave-owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) to preach other slaves into submission. Witnessing countless horrendous monstrosities inflicted on his fellow slaves, Turner is spurred on to lead an uprising.
Parker is excellent as Turner, who is by turns blessed, betrayed, calm and angry. Indeed, all the performances here are noteworthy, particularly Gabrielle Union as Esther. Esther’s role in the film is particularly problematic, as are all the female roles. The women in the film seem to function purely as by-products of the men; they are raped and sold by the white slave-owners, but even when interacting with the black characters in the film – ostensibly their husbands or family – they aren’t actors so much as plot points. That Esther and Nancy, Nat’s wife (Aja Naomi King) are raped is horrific enough, but given the extra-textual context of the filmmaker, the way these women are treated by the film is uncomfortable. For example, Parker seems to want to present Nancy and Nat’s first meeting as romantic, or at least noble, but the overarching connotations of ownership, dominance and, yes, rape are just too loud to ignore.
Given the absolute dearth of films even featuring actors of colour, let alone starring them, The Birth of a Nation is always going to be a significant piece of art. That it also features Parker and other people of colour in significant roles behind the camera is another reason to praise it. Furthermore, the production design and mise-en-scène that conjure up the rich landscapes of Virginia are stunning. Turner is a conflicted and fascinating character, and his internal struggle as he goes between preaching to slaves at the behest of slave-owners to contemplating rebellion is brilliantly brought to life by Parker.
This intellectual duality is sharply contrasted with the brutal scenes of violence that punctuate the film, and it’s not one for the faint-hearted. Just in case you were thinking about it, this is definitely not a date movie. Its serious subject-matter is definitely one that deserves and needs to be on the screen more often, and perhaps this kind of gory and impactful violence is a necessary component. The combination of this, Turner’s character development and the many, many allusions to religion all combine to give the film a heaviness that’s hard to get through. It is at times disjointed, and while Turner’s every thought and whim is given great importance, other characters are one-dimensional and function only to hurry the story along.
Parker is excellent as Turner, who is by turns blessed, betrayed, calm and angry
Most of the highs and lows in the film both lie in Parker’s treatment of Turner. Early on in the film he’s established as a religious visionary, and an extraordinarily gifted child. As he grows up he has to learn to balance these gifts with his existence as a slave, and his internal battle with this is fascinating, and gives the film a complexity rarely seen on the big screen recently. On the other hand, the film’s climax and ending feel overdone, too self-important and in general, too much.
It’s hard to go into seeing this film without being, in some way, prejudiced by the media coverage of Parker and his past. That in itself is a problem – lots of people can enjoy Woody Allen’s comedy without being overly influenced by his life. The question of race is, inevitably, huge here, and this film merits being watched first and foremost for its weighty subject matter.
It’s an important, epic piece of filmmaking that is often realised perfectly. There are scenes of beauty, and scenes of emotional resonance, and scenes of brutal realism that are deeply affecting. The film’s ending is a whirlwind mix of catharsis, violence, redemption, murder, revenge and philosophy. But there are also problematic portrayals of women, an air of self-importance that doesn’t sit flush with the historical importance of the story being told.
If possible, try and see this film without being prejudiced or influenced by coverage of Nate Parker. Try and see this as it was intended – as a hugely important meditation on the brutality of the history of slavery in America, and as a much needed example of black cinema. In a world where race and questions of identity are becoming more and more fraught, it’s great to see a film putting people of colour (both in the present and the past) front and centre. It’s flawed, like its protagonist, and it’ll be controversial, like its creator, but The Birth of a Nation is an epic and important watch.
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