The Birth of a Nation




Black history told afresh from an early 19th century perspective.

Birth of a Nation, The
Armie Hammer, Nate Parker and Jayson Warner Smith


Fairly or not, this film by Nate Parker has been dogged by controversy and this review will suggest an additional reason to be dubious about it. On the other hand, I do not hesitate to brand as irrelevant the notion that the film should be stigmatised because of revived accusations relating to claims of rape against Parker and his co-author Jean McGianni Celestin in 1999. Innocent or guilty, the quality of their film should be assessed without reference to their personal lives. Genuinely relevant, however, is the fact that some reviewers have referred to omissions and distortions in the film's portrayal of the life of the black slave Nat Turner, a portrayal which starting in 1809 builds to his leadership of an uprising against plantation owners and their like in Virginia in 1831. An opening credit informs us yet again that what we are about to see is 'based on a true story', but it seems sensible to suppose that most audiences these days will assume that what follows is yet another example of a film in which real events have been freely dramatised. Consequently, the only genuine reason for concern on this point lies in the fact that Parker has deliberately borrowed the title of D. W. Griffith's highly controversial classic of 1915: that means that he seems to be saying that, whereas that film's supportive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan was a gross misrepresentation, his version of the just anger of ill-treated blacks prior to the start of the American Civil war is a wholly truthful corrective.


In this film Nat Turner, played by Parker himself, is seen as a forerunner of black activists who would have to fight against later injustices. Turner's story has unexpected individuality in that he was religious and, having been taught to read, became a preacher. Once he reached adulthood he was sent around by white people to encourage other slaves to accept their lot by quoting biblical passages chosen for that very purpose. He retained his faith but, through witnessing the sufferings of his people, eventually concluded that Christianity supported rebellion.


It's a story worth telling and Parker in his directorial debut handles it competently. Even so, his film is totally overshadowed by memories of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave which brought an outraged dignity to its depiction of slavery that contrasts with Parker's approach which is not above inserting a vision of a black angel at the film's climax. For that matter, although Parker's performance is not terrible, as an actor he is simply not in the same league as Chiwetel Ejiofor or, say, David Oyelowo.


What really does disturb me, however, is the fact that this historical tale is clearly intended to be seen as meaningful in today's world. Consequently, it matters when the film fails to question Turner's interpretation of religion: on being reminded that the Christian God is the God of Love he declares that he is also the God of Wrath. Nat Turner is presented as the film's hero and to promote in this way somebody who takes the view that religion can justify killing is inappropriate, especially at a time when Isis would agree with that view. For that matter endorsing violent retaliation is hardly welcome when Trump's America seems to promise so much conflict ahead.




Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Jr, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Dwight Henry, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Tony Espinosa.


Dir Nate Parker, Pro Nate Parker, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert and Preston L. Holmes, Ex Pro Edward Zwick and Tony Parker, Screenplay Nate Parker, from a story by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, Ph Elliot Davis, Pro Des Geoffrey Kirkland, Ed Steven Rodemblum, Music Henry Jackman, Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuck.


Fox Searchlight Pictures/Bron Studios/Phantom Four/Mandalay Pictures/Tiny Giant Productions-20th Century Fox.
120 mins. USA/Canada. 2016. Rel: 9 December 2016. Cert. 15.