Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher in the antebellum South, orchestrates an uprising.
Purchased for a record fee at this year’s celebrated Sundance Film Festival, it’s safe to say I had high hopes for this movie, based around the life of Nat Turner – a literate slave in 1800s Virginia who begins a bloody rebellion. The film has had a rocky journey into cinemas; from being touted as the answer to the #OscarsSoWhite furore and, at one point, being odds-on to win Best Picture, the tide turned when rape allegations surrounding the film’s lead actor, writer and director – Nate Parker – resurfaced, which may have impacted on the film’s disappointing box office Stateside. But what to make of the film itself? Was it worthy of the hype surrounding it early on, or have the allegations masked what in reality is a mediocre film?
The story focuses on Nat’s travels to different plantations, where he is working as a preacher – dictating biblical verses to fellow slaves that advocate giving oneself to your master and promises that serving the white man will bring peace in the afterlife. Nat has been given this task following a deal between his master, Sam, (Armie Hammer in a strong supporting role) and the area’s white pastor Reverend Zalthall (played with plenty of ham by ‘Sons of Anarchy’s Mark Boone Jr), but his travels show him the brutality that other, more unforgiving slavemasters dole out to their slaves and it is this that stokes a fire within Nat, building to him leading an uprising in the film’s denouement.
Two issues hung over this film for me. Firstly, when the lead actor, writer and director has been caught up in a rape allegation, it is difficult to view the film’s two rape scenes without that having an impression on how we as viewers perceive the intent. On both occasions, the fallout from the rape is seen from the perspective of the victim’s husband, with both female characters hardly seen again following their assault. Secondly, the film suffers when compared with the last Best Picture contender that touched on this topic, ‘12 Years a Slave‘ – a film that ultimately went on to win the award. Whereas ‘12 Years a Slave‘ drew plaudits, particularly for its lingering camerawork and haunting performances, ‘The Birth of a Nation‘ offers nothing out of the ordinary. Parker is undoubtedly capable, and I would certainly like to see more from him, but I found much of the directing and script to be very much by the numbers, and the score grated on me – using strings to emphasise sorrow and loss, when a better performance would have done the job by itself. The cast here is fine, with Colman Domingo putting in a good turn as Nat’s fellow rebel Hark, but there is nothing that comes close to the heartbreaking fire of Lupita Nyongo’o or the vicious bile of Michael Fassbender, and the film suffers from having nobody grab it by its collar and make a good film great.
All things considered, ‘The Birth of a Nation‘ is worthy of watching, but unfortunately, is not the awards contender it clearly sets out to be.
Review by Richard Mason
Directed By: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley