THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union. Directed by Nate Parker. 120 minutes. Rated (Strong themes and violence).
‘The Birth of a Nation’ tells the true story of Nat Turner, a slave and Christian preacher from Virginia who led a 48-hour slave rebellion in his local county. The film is the passion project of writer, producer, director and star, Nate Parker, who was showered with accolades after its release over a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival. The film has since cooled, arguably due to a controversy from Parker’s past overshadowing the picture in the media. Nonetheless, it remains an important and powerful story, though its director’s inexperience come across in the film’s occasional heavy-handedness.
Its title is taken from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a noble force acting in the best interests of white Americans. Parker’s subversion sees Nat Turner’s own army of runaway slaves assume this mantle of justice, standing up against the barbaric treatment of African slaves by their wealthy Southern owners.
Earmarked as a leader and prophet since his youth, Turner’s literacy and ability to preach to his fellow slaves made him a widely sought-after speaker in his county. After his cash-strapped owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer, gap-toothed and morally conflicted) realised the financial potential of loaning Nat out to other farmers, the pair spent years travelling the area. Nat’s role was to use the faith of the slaves to suppress their feelings of anger towards and desire to rise against their owners, citing Bible passages that beseech slaves to obey their masters, be they kind or callous.
During these years, Nat encounters numerous haunting sights: a slave girl led around by a plantation owner’s daughter on a leash; a hunger striking slave having his teeth chiseled out of his mouth to make room for a funnel; the wife of a fellow slave being gifted to a white guest for the evening. His own wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is brutally assaulted by Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley, seething with fury), the same man that tried to murder Nat’s father decades earlier. These events coalesce until Nat sees how he has been manipulated and, taking inspiration from Exodus, he encourages his fellow slaves to rise against their masters in a brutal and bloody fashion. Their guerilla butchery may be short-lived, but its impact on the antebellum South will outlast them.
Of his four functions in the film, Parker’s best work is as the film’s lead. Nat is torn apart by his internal conflict – every time he has to witness another atrocity then tell the gathered slaves that they ought to bear them silently, it gets harder and harder. We see this struggle in Parker’s teary eyes, and hear it in his fight to find the right words. As writer and director, Parker does an admirable job mounting a large and complex story, but he also shows room to improve. A film like ’12 Years A Slave’ dealt with similar subject matter but in a very still, observational style – the atrocities of slavery are confronting enough without having every beat over-emphasised throughout framing and cutting. Parker misses this trick, and the film is a little weaker for trying too hard.
However, the crew he has marshalled about him is top notch. The cinematography from Elliot Davis emphasizes the curious beauty of the landscape and architecture, cotton fields and plantation houses, dappled light streaming through the Southern Oaks, in stark contrast to the human horror beneath. The costuming and production design are equally deft, and Henry Jackman’s score is haunting.
Given the aforementioned dispute that dominated much of the film’s release, as well as its thematic tussle with faith and violence, it could well be compared to ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, the director of which, Mel Gibson, was also subject to much media scrutiny for a number of widely reported issues throughout the last decade. Gibson’s recent Best Director nomination at the Oscars would suggest that perhaps he is coming back into favour. If Parker is extended the same olive branch, his efforts here suggest he has a bright future in film ahead of him.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released on DVD and Blu-ray on February 2.
20th Century Fox.