An often powerful, albeit flawed work that should be of considerable interest to audiences in South Africa. (Review by Patrick Compton – Rating 8)
Historians of the cinema may recall DW Griffith’s 1915 movie, The Birth of a Nation, which was both racist (it applauded the Klu Klux Klan as a heroic force) and revolutionary due to its use of advanced filming techniques.
Actor-director Nate Parker has deliberately given his film, many years in the making, the same title, largely because it approaches the building of the American nation from the opposite perspective, through its African-American icon, Nat Turner, who led a slave’s revolt in August 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia.
The film, which Parker scripted, directed and stars in, is undeniably didactic in tone and occasionally lacking in nuance, but is nevertheless a potent portrait of slavery and of the events that led to the rebellion.
The movie, released in the United States last year, began its life promisingly, being awarded the prize of best film at the Sundance Festival. It seemed destined to become an Oscar contender but then fell from grace largely because of a personal scandal involving Parker when it emerged that he had been tried for rape whilst a student 18 years ago.
The fact that Parker was acquitted didn’t seem to matter to his detractors. Furthermore, DH Lawrence’s injunction to “trust the tale, not the teller” seems to have been completely lost in the dust of public controversy. In general, critics have opted to take the simplistic and erroneous strategy adopted by Paul Johnson in his scathing 1989 book, Intellectuals, in which he argued that a person’s intellectual achievements are somehow infected if his/her personal life doesn’t scrub up. If that was the case, few works of art, politics and science would stand up to scrutiny, and it seems unfair to judge this film on such a basis.
Assessed more objectively, The Birth of a Nation is an often powerful, albeit flawed work that should be of considerable interest to audiences in South Africa, not least because of its racial theme.
The movie, much like Steve McQueen’s superior 12 Days a Slave, takes considerable pains to build a portrait of life in the deep south where slaves are owned by men who are often viciously racist. Parker makes it clear that even more benign whites were thoroughly paternalistic in their attitudes.
Turner, having been taught to read at an early age, develops into a charismatic preacher, holding regular services on the estate where his owner (Armie Hammer) accords him certain liberties denied to most slaves. The local economy is fragile, however, and the owner finds himself and his cotton estate in financial distress. And with rumblings of slave discontent also evident, he realises that a black preacher is a valuable commodity.
The tone of the film now changes as the owner, scenting the prospect of monetary reward, forces Turner to preach a gospel of submission to his fellow slaves. It quickly becomes clear to Turner how he is being exploited, not least when he experiences the cruel treatment meted out to other slaves and finally to his own wife, Cherry (Naomi King), who is beaten and raped.
This incident – which is problematic as historians claim it never happened – appears to sanction the slave leader’s change of heart toward his oppressors. The tenor of Turner’s sermons now changes as God becomes a vehicle of revenge and punishment rather than love and reconciliation. “With the strength of our Father,” he tells his collaborators, “we’ll cut the head from the serpent. We’ll destroy them all.”
It’s disappointing that after all this careful exposition, the movie’s closing scenes, which record the failed rebellion and the fate of its perpetrators, are too quickly telescoped. Furthermore, the movie focuses too exclusively on Turner who hogs the screen at the expense of his comrades and the important women in his life who are effectively sidelined.
Still, the film’s closing point is a powerful one. As we watch the devastated face of a black youngster attending a hanging, we see it morph into his adult face as, wearing the uniform of a Union trooper, he charges into the Confederate ranks in the civil war that was fought 30 years later to abolish slavery.
Parker is an ambitious young filmmaker and this movie, warts and all, is a promising feature film debut on an important subject.
The Birth of a Nation opened at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway, on January 13. – Patrick Compton