Directed by Nate Parker Written by Nate Parker Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo & Gabrielle Union Film Review by Dean Pettipher
In the early twentieth century, the director, writer and producer named D. W. Griffith saw his movie entitled The Birth of a Nation (1915) unleashed by Hollywood upon the global media stage. The picture was an adaptation of Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novels, most notably The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905). Audiences and critics alike looked beyond the fact that Griffith had led the charge in creating a Klu Klux Klan (KKK) propaganda film that was based on pro-Klan literature and so the work was elevated to the gold standard of a commercial, critical and cultural triumph. In the decades that followed, movie scholars who occupied mainstream positions carried on celebrating the technical accomplishments and all but ignored the shameless racist cinematic didacticism at the heart of its story. Albeit there might have been a scarce amount of credible evidence to support such assertions, historians couldn’t help but wonder whether or not the project had at least played a part in inspiring a rebirth of the KKK, as well as an increase in the number of lynching incidents and other acts of racist violence throughout the first half of the last century. In the grand scheme of cinema’s role within society, where audiences often find themselves torn between judging a movie within a social context or in complete isolation, one of the best summaries of the movie came from the US President, Woodrow Wilson, when he declared that The Birth of a Nation (1915) was “like history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Almost a century later, in spite of recent scandalous predicaments, including the #OscarssoWhite drama, an excellent directorial debut from Nate Parker, appropriately entitled The Birth of a Nation (2016) has gloriously charged into the spotlight. With sheer passion, candid shock and intelligent exploration of religion, the very deliberate and determined feature highlights both how far society has come and how much further still society must traverse so that the hopes for total and sincere racial equality are one day fully and forever realised. For at least on paper the notion that all human beings are created equal has served as an integral part of the American Dream and indeed the equivalent aspirations of various nations around world.
To the aforementioned end, Parker stated that he employed the title of Griffith’s 1915 movie of the same name in such a manner that was “[ironic], but very much by design.” Furthermore, Parker also asserted:
"Griffith's film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today. I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."
To date, Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) has attracted celebration and controversy in ostensibly equal measure. The former consequence has been epitomised by the winning of major awards, such the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The latter result has been fuelled by past turmoil that Parker has endured behind the camera, within the space of reality, which has been raging to varying degrees for over a decade. To best understand each state of affairs and the latter one in particular, one would be best-advised to explore various sources on all sides of the argument and ultimately make their own minds up. In the meantime, in the interest of appreciating The Birth of a Nation as a work of art and celebrating the noble sentiment that the painting-in-motion promotes, without drowning in the troubled waters of politics, The Birth of a Nation is without question a superb film in its own right. In short, not a single description fits the movie quite so aptly as 12 Years a Slave (2013) meets Braveheart (1995). However, albeit the description is abundantly clear in almost every scene, to employ such words alone would be cruel oversimplification of the film and overlook its genuine glistening of Academy-Award-worthy elements, which may tragically be deliberately overlooked, simply because principle decision-makers feel that they have ‘been there and done that’ when it comes to celebrating films that promote racial diversity. Such beliefs would undoubtedly be justified by the fact that 12 Years a Slave won numerous accolades not so long ago, suggesting incorrectly that the quest for greater diversity within the film industry is over. Parker has merged the overwhelming overflow of emotional imagery and music from Braveheart with the horrifyingly uncompromising depictions of slavery from 12 Years a Slave in the manner that combines the best of both films. Furthermore, the combination results in a uniquely reflective and defiant cinematic voice that has revelled in the opportunity of bringing an untold true story of a tragedy that helped set the stage for the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States that followed the furious conflict. While The Birth of a Nation will not win over those who for whatever reason did not find either Braveheart or 12 Years a Slave appealing, freeing one’s mind to giving the movie a chance will allow for the quick realisation in relation to why the film’s worldwide distribution rights were bought by Fox Searchlight Pictures for a record-breaking sum if 17.5 million US dollars, which amounted to the biggest deal of its kind ever reached at the Sundance Film Festival. The risk, at least as far as the artistic side of the equation was concerned, was most certainly worthwhile.
Beyond the obvious similarities with 12 Years a Slave, the theme of slavery and the historical context of pre-Civil War America, The Birth of a Nation features a blunt and horrific presentation of the turpitudes endured by African-American men, women and children. Parker appears determined to illustrate the agony both within and without that the slaves suffered under the ruthless control of their white masters in a manner that insists that the memory must never, ever be forgotten or forsaken, for such a turn would risk society taking leaps backwards towards repeating such viciousness. Fortunately, rarely do the instances of ruthless torture portrayed feel like exact copies of or even heavily mimicked versions of the definitive scenes helmed by Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave. Depending on the distinctive sensibilities of individual audience members, some scenes from The Birth of a Nation may be extremely difficult and excruciating to view. Moreover, they definitely served as some of the most shocking moments of the 2016 London Film Festival (LFF 2016), whether one held up the movie as a personal favourite from the festival selection or not. As far as Braveheart is concerned, story arcs, plot turning points, music, imagery and the desperate fight for freedom together utterly compel audiences to recall the definitive historical drama from Mel Gibson. One key example is the dramatic music from Henry Jackman that fuels the thrills of the more intense spectacles especially. While the melodies do not stick in memory long after the credits roll, when one is lost in the moment of their rampage, they are consistently superb cinematic aids that suit their intended film perfectly. Another crucial example is one of the best small-scale battle scenes of the present decade, for it is alluded to with excellent imagery of a foreboding nature and still manages to firmly grip audiences with its fast-paced and very dramatic exhibition of filmmaker talent and storytelling brilliance. Similarities extend even to the crafting of the work, since just like Gibson directed, co-produced and starred in his movie, Nate Parker confidently directed, wrote, co-produced and starred in his film, becoming a worthy addition to the roster of admirable filmmakers who thrive on the workaholic, passion-driven, possibly less expensive and ostensibly one-man-band approach to filmmaking. However, once again, the intense drama from The Birth of a Nation is so poised and masterfully-presented that one appreciates the mix of influences from cinematic milestones with original, even if only slight, variations of artistic interpretation. Parker’s movie may not be better than either of its most crucial sources of creative stimulation. Nevertheless, the film emerges on a platform that stands just about as high, glowing and glistening as vividly and as brightly as any other exemplary movies of its genre.
Before condemning The Birth of a Nation as a safe, derivative picture, one should remember that some of the most successful works of art have flourished in no small part due to their borrowing and adaptation of ideas from other great works. Notable examples include Avatar (2009) and its similarities with FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992) and Pocahontas (1995). Furthermore, the director and writer, James Cameron, noted that he had also drawn from every single science book that he had read as a child. Allowing so many influences to ultimately enhance Avatar did not stop it from making around 2.788 billion US dollars at the global box office, more than covering its enormous cost of 237 million US dollars in the process. Additionally, the late film critic, Robert Ebert, asserted that Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope “was a technical watershed that influenced many of the movies that came after.” Thus, one might easily forget or indeed never learn in the first place about the films that influenced George Lucas’s cinematic genius, such as Flash Gordon (1934), The Hidden Fortress (1958) and The Searchers (1956). Even literary landmarks such as “Beowulf” (c. 700–1000 AD for the poem and 975–1010 AD for the manuscript) are believed to have been heavily influenced by works that came before them, most notably the Bible. While there are plenty of films available to watch today that excessively indulge in seeking creative counsel from great films of the past to the point where they plagiarise or at least surrender their own original narrative voice in their lazy or desperate pursuit of making a good movie, The Birth of Nation does not deserve to be chained to eternal damnation within such territories.
Truly, The Birth of a Nation features performances that are worthy of the most prestigious accolades from across the world. Nate Parker’s self-assured and composed leading performance as a frequently neglected and under-appreciated historical figure, a the literate slave and preacher living in the Deep South named Nat Turner, bleeds with passion, grit and tenacity. Audiences observe Turner’s inner turmoil as he seeks to understand his Christian faith, particularly in the wake of witnessing horrifying acts of violence committed by his masters, justified by the apparent approval from God and the Holy Bible. Every drop of tempestuous emotion spilled by Parker is impressively conveyed and therefore deeply felt by many around him, both on and off-screen. Even as Turner merely sits and broods over crucial decisions, Parker’s composure proudly encourages his fellow players to also deliver their most emotionally-charged and collected performances to date. The finest delight of that circumstance is the breath-taking presentation of the morally ambiguous slave owner, Samuel Turner, by Armie Hammer. Hammer performs with striking elegance and eloquence, meaning that his character remains firmly within memory even though he is not required to do anything particularly drastic as an artist, such as cry or shout hysterically. Samuel Turner grows up with the protagonist as if the two of them were brothers or at least close childhood friends. When they are well into adulthood and Samuel takes on the family responsibilities of running the plantation and becoming Nat’s master, Hammer employs wonderful facial expressions and incredibly meticulous vocal expressions, which consistently suggest that Samuel is plagued by a moral dilemma prompted by the harsh lenses through which he must view Nat at society’s demand. Thus, Hammer’s character is the only antagonistic force of the story that prompts the suggestion best outlined by the director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu. That is to say, Samuel appears to be the only clear and genuine “victim of his own culture.” Albeit Samuel ultimately conforms to the status quo, he never does so with malevolence in his heart, which is most certainly not the case regarding his fellow members of high society, who in comparison greatly exploit the high elevation afforded to them by the state of white supremacy. Hammer featured in three films at the LFF 2016. While his roles in Nocturnal Animals (2016) and Free Fire (2016) were no less believable, his performance in The Birth of a Nation is by far the best and indeed the most significant of his career. Hammer in the historical drama may be aesthetically-recognisable but it is here alone where he shines as an actor who is more than capable of descending with self-confidence into the boundless depths of his character, to the point that audiences could easily forget the identity of the artist in action. To this day, Hammer has celebrated precious little luck in the sense that the films he has helped to bring to fruition as the leading star have usually been flops, such as The Lone Ranger (2013). Furthermore, his more demanding performances have tended to be in well-received films, such The Social Network (2010), where he has unfortunately played a supporting character with far from enough screen time to stand out in audience hearts as a one of the greatest highlights of the picture. The Birth of a Nation may just mark the point where such misfortune changes. Hammer’s humble road to a well-deserved Oscar nomination continues, promising with all but absolute certainty that the destination will be reached. Finally, regarding the acting talent, brief but essential mentions must be made for Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Junior and Aja Naomi King. Without their input, the pain-inducing impact of the sickeningly nefarious behaviour displayed by the principle antagonists, Raymond Cobb and Reverend Zalthall, would fall flat. Furthermore, the stunning beauty and poignancy of Nat’s brave love interest, the slave girl named Cherry, would fall flatter still. Instead, all of the cast have risen to the challenge of employing their artistic prowess in order to make The Birth of a Nation astonish with authenticity and distinctiveness.
The directing and the writing from Parker indicate that he has the potential become one of the best decision-makers in Hollywood today. In spite of adding in a number of fictitious story elements for dramatic effect, made possible partly because so little is known for certain about the real slave and preacher, Nat Turner, there is a great deal of clear signs that suggest an underlying pursuit of an honest and sensitively passionate tone, particularly in relation to the importance of the central theme of slavery. Parker’s stunning cinematography depicts the white palaces of the plantations dotted around the lush cotton fields of the Deep South. Even in darkness, the presentation of the various purpose-built sets and the real-life historical structures, which are utilized to the fullest by the intensely immersed actors who employ them, keep audiences happily shackled to their seats from start to finish. Parker also demands total engagement from audiences when he employs intriguing imagery that links Turner’s childhood to his adult life in such a way that occasionally slows the pace down a little bit too much for the sake of fruitful reflection. Also, Parker’s well-balanced screenplay illustrates his credible understanding of how to employ dense works like the Bible in a manner that consistently escapes from the dreaded spectre of dullness. Parker evidently undertook thorough research into the spiritual literature, since he successfully selects appropriate quotes to insightfully highlight how the numerous contradictions of the sacred text have been exploited for fundamentally selfish and arguably evil aims, most notably creating and maintaining notoriously unjust hierarchies based on race. Employing frequent biblical references within the dialogue, Parker presents Nat Turner as a beleaguered preacher who is driven to the stage where he can no longer acquiescence with agonizing guilt in oppression by white supremacy that thrives on the abuse of African-Americans. Thus, Turner’s sudden epiphany that motivates him to lead a fierce uprising appears well-justified and perfectly reasonable. Even if one cannot judge the antagonists as wicked at heart, one would find it much more difficult not to consider the actions of those antagonists as so wrong that a furious fightback against them, resulting in significant collateral damage, seems like an absolutely necessary last resort for positive change.
Audiences, critics and industry professionals may think that they have done all that they should in relation to celebrating the achievements of black stars and the increased success resulting from the broader diversity debate simply because 12 Years a Slave won big at the Oscars in 2014. Thus, they may feel content with giving future works from such artists precious little of their attention, even if they really do deserve much more than that, without critics needing to exaggerate their overall quality for the sake of political progress. Nonetheless, the need for stories like Nat Turner’s to be told remains critical. Similarly, the thirst for decent romantic comedies that remind audiences, for better or worse, about how success in romantic love is possible even if not quite in the fashion of a film script, remains forever unquenchable. The Birth of a Nation may not quite be one of those movies that audiences urgently need to see before it is too late. However, if they end up watching the film for whatever reason, the seeds of regret will not have been sown as a result, for they will be treated to an inspiring presentation of an ephemeral, Pyrrhic victory that helped to cause a crucial ripple effect that led to the abolition of slavery in the USA. As far as the technical side of the filmmaking is concerned, just like audiences did for Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), they will forgive The Birth of a Nation’s similarities to other movies that have come before it, mainly because Parker’s film is so brilliantly made by its team of talent and desperately wanted by fans of the specific genre. However, the challenge for the future will be for Parker and his collaborators to take more creative risks as filmmakers in search of more innovative cinematic storytelling. More importantly, however, as long as Parker never loses his unique heart that keeps all of his movies so passionately alive, illustrated even off-camera most recently by the fact that he put 100,000 US dollars of his own money towards The Birth of Nation, his work will always feature at least a handful of silver screen treasures for audiences to revel in. ￼