Earlier this year, Nate Parker’s debut directorial film broke the record for the most paid for a Sundance Film Festival production, which exceeded Little Miss Sunshine’s record in 2006. It also won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in the US Dramatic Competition category. However, in a spectacular fall from grace, marketing for the film has been plagued regarding the rape allegations surrounding Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin. It is fair to say that The Birth of a Nation was always going to be controversial due to its sensitive themes, but can Parker’s feature triumph over adversity?
The film follows Nat Turner (Parker), a slave owned by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Taught at an early age to study the Bible, Nat grows up to become a preacher, who Samuel takes across the local area to spread his preaching. However, as his teachings progress, the increasing brutality towards fellow slaves influence Nat to take charge in a different way.
First of all, it is easy to compare The Birth of a Nation with 2013 Oscar winner 12 Years of Slave. They both have an African-American protagonist who has to survive the harshness of slavery. However, while Solomon Northrup wrote an account of his ordeal, Parker wrote a story about Turner with Celestin after learning about him at university. Along with the reported accusations regarding historical inaccuracies in the film, this just raises questions about its integrity as a biopic. In addition, significant character development elements rushed and somewhat unfulfilling, with supporting cast members becoming wasted opportunities. One particular example is the friendship between Samuel and Nat. Once childhood friends, the dynamic gradually shifted from mutual respect to animosity and there is little insight to how this emotionally affects each other. Hammer puts in a credible performance as the struggling Samuel and is a critical character in the film, but his screen time is too short to fully develop his supporting role.
There’s no denying that the theme of slavery is a delicate subject, and Parker isn’t afraid to show the brutality experienced by slaves. Ranging from force-feeding, torture and assault against its female characters, namely Nat’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and friend Esther (Gabrielle Union), it can be hard to watch without wincing. It is just unfortunate that such scenes don’t have an outwardly effect on Nat – he doesn’t express anger, passion or vengeance, so it is hard to believe that this man is destined to lead his peers to such violence.
However, The Birth of A Nation has come at a critical time. Given recent events surrounding US shootings and Brexit, the issue of racism is increasing awareness in society and the film reinforces the fact that it needs to be addressed. The film’s timely release is also making a mark in the filmmaking industry. People are looking for more diversity among filmmakers and actors, and Parker has delivered a passion-fuelled project. As writer, producer, director and lead actor, he dominates the film both behind and in front of the camera – his performance as Nat is controlled, conscientious and full of spirit. In addition, he manages to express the desolation of the local slaves and the intensity of Nat’s rebellion behind the camera, showing audiences that he has what it takes to be a decent filmmaker. Only time will tell if he becomes an amazing one.
Overall, The Birth of a Nation is a solid directorial debut marred by missed creative opportunities, so don’t expect the triumph reported at Sundance.
The Birth of a Nation is out in UK cinemas on 20 January 2017.
Director: Nate Parker
Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, jackie Early Healy, Mark Boone Junior, Gabrielle Union
Runtime: 120 min
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