LFF 2016: The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker's slavery epic is a pre-digested and formulaic take on Nat Turner's slave rebellion
The reaction to Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation has exposed the superficiality of the film industry’s political conscience and the cravenness of its awards-centric mentality. At Sundance, the slavery epic sparked a bidding war and rave reviews; then came the revival of Nate Parker’s personal controversies, and his mealy-mouthed, Hollywood-phoney reaction to them; now the film opens to muted reaction. If Parker’s story hadn’t blown wide open since January, would there be such licence at large to take on the film’s artistic mediocrity, or would we now be subjected to unquestioning declarations of its (capital I) Importance?
The title of The Birth of a Nation, a response to D.W. Griffith’s film, is positioned as as a redress to the racism of American culture, and indeed Parker’s movie seems to begin with a sense of purpose, establishing Nat Turner’s childhood with Spielbergian broad gloss. It builds to the bloody rebellion Turner led in 1831, but does so not by establishing Turner’s deep religious fervour or political consciousness – rather, he’s presented as a brainwashed preacher who throws off Biblical servitude in favour of a gospel of vengeance thanks to several inciting incidents.
We’re shown a series of events that lead to Turner just not taking it anymore, including crowds of sickly slaves grimacing in a service, a slave having his teeth knocked out, and Turner’s own wife attacked. These scenes feel at once a grisly manipulation, bluntly effective in the moments, as well as Parker’s rote checklist to justify motivation.
Rather than seek advice from black historians or filmmakers on how to deliver Turner’s story honestly, Parker’s main confidante on this seems to have been Mel Gibson. Indeed, The Birth of a Nation ultimately ends up feeling like Slaveheart or Slaveragette – an important subject pre-digested and trivialised with a formulaic, vanity-project idea of seriousness. The final shot, connecting bloody slave uprisings like Turner’s with the breakthrough of the civil war 30 years later, is a cathartic way of threading history, but that’s not enough to ennoble this whole movie.
The Birth of the Nation had its UK premiere at London Film Festival