The Birth of a Nation arrives on our shores burdened by the weight of considerable expectation. Premiered at Sundance in January, this independent production garnered rave reviews and a record-breaking sale to Fox Searchlight pictures and, at the time, there was much talk of Oscar nominations. Since then, however, the water have been somewhat muddied by the revelation that star/writer/director, Nat Turner was accused of rape back in 1999 (although he was subsequently acquitted) and that the film, though clearly heartfelt, might not be quite as accomplished as early reviews suggested.
The title itself is also controversial, since it is shared by DW Griffith’s infamous silent movie of 1915, which made heroes of the Ku Klux Klan and had them riding to the rescue of a young white woman (played by Lillian Gish), menaced by pantomime black villains.
Turner’s based-on-true-events film tells the story of Nate Parker, a young slave raised on an antebellum cotton plantation in the deep South of America, who manages to teach himself to read and, encouraged by one sympathetic slave owner, goes on to become a preacher, travelling from plantation to plantation in order to spread the word of God to his fellow slaves. In doing this, he is helping to earn money for his repellant master, Samuel (Armie Hammer) a once powerful patriarch, now a hopeless alcoholic, obsessed with living up to the reputation of his late father. As Nate travels, he witnesses the kind of everyday brutality meted out to black people in the system (a scene where a man’s teeth are taken out with a hammer and chisel is hard to watch) and he begins to feel a sense of outrage over their predicament; but it is not till the rape of his own wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) at the hands of white ‘slave-chasers’ that his thoughts finally turn to bloody rebellion.
Some of the scenes depicted here will inevitably outrage any sane viewer, but the film also commits the cardinal sin of being rather dull for long stretches and there are some decidedly ill-considered moments – Turner’s occasional visions of a angel are particularly mawkish. This is by no means a bad film; indeed, as a debut, it’s more than competent, but it must be said, that it’s certainly not the masterpiece we might have been led to expect; and judging from the few bums on seats at the afternoon performance we attended, it’s not exactly pulling in the punters either.
Brutal, hard-hitting and worthy of attention – but not as assured as it could have been.