2016 – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL – THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016) – SPOILER FREE REVIEW
TITLE: THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)
DIRECTOR/PRODUCER/WRITER: Nate Parker
CAST: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Aja Noomi King
STORY: At the turn of the 1800s a charismatic preacher must decide between a life of slavery or to stand up and fight against his brutal captors.
This drama, written, produced, directed and starring by Nate Parker has, since its release at the Sundance Festival, created a whole host of controversies. There is a historical rape prosecution of which Nate Parker was found innocent of in 1999; there are accusations of historical inaccuracies in the story; plus the passivity of female characters within the narrative has been criticized too. Not surprising though because any film about slavery, rape, abuse and murder is bound to set the cultural world, internet, film industry, social media, historians etc. alight with debate.
Personally, when I watch a film I prefer to judge it purely on whether it has entertained, informed, provoked thought and created emotion. The filmmakers’ personal history or whether a film meets certain quotas on political correctness or even whether the history has been altered to suit a narrative are important factors but not my main viewing considerations. Of course, if it is an exploitative piece of crap then I would call it; but mainly I ask myself: did the film entertain me and is it a good story done well?
Well, inaccuracies and controversies aside I was thoroughly moved and taken with emotion by The Birth of a Nation. It is ambitious, independent filmmaking which takes a figure from history that stood up against oppressors and fought back against the injustices that befell him and his people. In little over two hours we get a microcosmic view of the character of Nat Turner and the horrific period he lived in and get a short, sharp and shocking drama. Turner is shown to be an intelligent, proud and spiritual force who inspires those around him to fight against the brutality all around.
You cannot underestimate Parker’s vision and determination to bring Nat Turner’s ‘story’ to the screen. On such a relatively low budget (reported to be £10 million) it is an admirable and risky project to pursue and deliver. Not as startlingly stylistic as the big-budget-spaghetti-slave-Western Django Unchained (2012), The Birth of a Nation is a heart-breaking narrative which posits the power of the scriptures and damns the beast of humanity which allowed free people to be stolen from their country and made to serve others.
Overall, the film works as a lower-budget epic in the vein of Braveheart (1995) and Spartacus (1960), while covering similar ground thematically as Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave (2013). It may not have the artistry of Steve McQueen’s directed epic, but it is still an important film about a fascinating historical figure. Whether it is accurate or not the film still made compelling viewing and Parker deserves all the praise he gets for such an assured debut.