Review: The Birth of a Nation (2016)

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Directed by: Nate Parker | 120 minutes | biography, drama, history | Actors: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Tony Espinosa, Jayson Warner Smith, Jason Stuart, Chiké Okonkwo, Katie Garfield, Kai Norris, Chris Greene, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Steve Coulter, Jeryl Prescott, Justin Randell Brooke, Dominic Bogart

With the three-hour epic ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915), filmmaker DW Griffith established himself as a pioneer of modern cinema. According to experts, that film started the era of film as we still know it today. But there is also a lot of controversy surrounding ‘The Birth of a Nation’, especially from a thematic point of view. African Americans were portrayed as stupid and sexually aggressive towards white women. They were also played by white actors with black faces. And that while members of the Ku Klux Klan are portrayed as heroes (the movement was revived in 1915, partly because of the impact of the film). The criticism (mostly from the northern part of the United States) prompted Griffith to release ‘Intolerance’ (1916) a year later, but that film was not perceived the way he once intended by critics and the public alike. About a hundred years after ‘The Birth of a Nation’, American actor Nate Parker comes up with his own version of events. He focuses on the life story of Nat Turner (1800-1831), the man who started a slave revolt in Virginia and had to pay with his death. Parker deliberately uses the same title as Griffith’s controversial classic for his directorial debut, to reinforce his statement. With his version of ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (2016), Parker aims to ‘expose racism and white supremacy, inspire people to fight every form of injustice – in the US and beyond – and urge society to face a fair confrontation with engage each other, on the road to healing and solid systematic change’.

Those are pretty ambitious words, and Parker takes it all seriously, as evidenced by the fact that he spent years getting the project off the ground. In addition to starring, he also directs, writes (with childhood friend Jean McGianni Celestin) and also produces the film. So he cannot be denied any kind of devotion. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ follows quite traditionally the structure of the biopic: we see how the young Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa) stands out at a young age because of his intelligence. Although the lady of the house (Penelope Ann Miller) initially takes him under her wing and gives him a Bible to practice reading, after the death of her husband Benjamin (Danny Vinson), Nat still has to go to the country to pick cotton. The ailing plantation is taken over by Benjamin’s son Samuel (Armie Hammer), who treats Nat – who has since made it to the rank of pastor – respectfully. Nat even seems able to influence him, for example when he persuades Samuel to buy the young slave girl Cherry (Aja Naomi King) at the slave market so that Nat can marry her. Outsiders think that Samuel releases his slaves way too much, but he doesn’t seem to care. Then Samuel is asked by the influential Reverent Walthall (Mark Boone Jr.) to tour other plantations with Nat. The intention is that Nat proclaims the word of God to the slaves and in this way instills fear in them. The main message; whoever disobeys his superior will go to hell.

During those visits to other plantations, Nat discovers that elsewhere things are not nearly as peaceful as the Turners. Slaves are mistreated and oppressed in the most horrible ways. The confrontation with all these abuses stirs up rebellious feelings in Nat. Feelings that are reinforced when his own wife is raped by slave driver Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) and his men. Samuel comes under increasing pressure; to keep his head above water financially, he is forced to hook up with influential but extremely pernicious types. One day when Nat baptizes a misguided white man who has seen the light, Samuel is furious: what will others think of him when they find out that his black pastor baptized a white man? The hundred lashes that follow are the final straw. Nat must act, and as soon as possible. He drums up a handful of reliable seconds and launches an act of revenge that is unparalleled.

The horrors of the slave era have of course been translated many times to the silver screen. It remains confrontational and intense every time to see what injustice has been done to people, and given the recent developments (including #BlackLivesMatter) the subject is still topical. Films in which slaves take revenge have not been original since Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ (2012). Nevertheless, the story of Nat Turner had to be told once. For Nate Parker, this project is a true labor of love, that much is clear (he refused to take on other roles while he was working on this film). Although he was inspired by the facts, he also allowed himself a certain freedom of interpretation. He left out or downplayed certain less rosy things, because his Nat Turner had to be a hero above all. So Turner’s belief system in the film is significantly less extreme than in reality, and the fact that the slave revolt sparked a bloody counter-movement that would actually make the situation for slaves even worse is tucked away in a footnote. But this is a feature film and not a documentary, so that space to bend the facts a bit as you see fit may be used.

‘The Birth of a Nation’ is Nate Parker’s film, in every way. His character is the only one that seems to have been fleshed out and the focus of the camera is on him in nine out of ten scenes. Parker is a fine actor, who can handle such a role. But his Nat Turner splashes less off the screen than, for example, Jamie Foxx’ Django in the aforementioned ‘Django Unchained’. The same actually applies to the film itself; the story, the camera work, the music; in itself it is all quite decent, but it does not really stimulate or grab the viewer by the throat. Perhaps this is due to the excessive sprinkling of exaggerated symbolism; subtlety is nowhere to be found here (Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ in a scene – beautifully filmed – in which we see countless bodies hanging in trees…). The fact that the camera turns away with almost every violent scene is a trick to make the film accessible to a wider audience. And so Parker uses more such tricks to please the viewer. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ could have been a big contender for the Oscars – the story behind it and the theme is usually highly valued by The Academy – but shocking revelations from Parker’s past put a stop to that (along with co-screenwriter Celestin, he would forced a woman into sex in 1999; the victim then went into severe depression and committed suicide in 2012). At some point, his film was no longer discussed, even though Parker was already acquitted in 2001 and Celestin in 2005.

Despite all the controversies and fringe issues, Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is worth checking out. Although the history has been slightly adjusted to make the heroism of Nat Turner come out better and the film adaptation colors within the lines fairly well and sometimes sends us a bit too emphatically in a certain direction, the story deserves to be told. Nate Parker put all his heart and soul into the film and while he doesn’t immediately distinguish himself as a director, he deserves kudos for the guts and ambitions he shows here. Hopefully, on his next project, he will also leave some room for other cast members to shine. This film will not receive the status of a classic, such as DW Griffith’s epic of the same title.

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