At the start of the year, the noise surrounding The Birth Of A Nation was deafening. After its Sundance screening, the word Oscar was being mentioned, despite the 2016 ceremony being some weeks away. That was then. By the time summer arrived, it was fading from the radar and by the time it landed at this year’s London Film Festival, its profile was still on the wane. Now it arrives in UK cinemas in the run-up to Christmas, some of the most crowded weeks on the cinema schedule.
So what happened? Personal stories about director, writer, producer and star Nate Parker can’t have helped, but post-Sundance receptions have generally been less rapturous. An important film, certainly, but also one with problems. It’s inspired by the true story of Nat Turner (Parker), who was born into slavery in Virginia and became a renowned preacher. As a boy, he plays with young Samuel Turner, who grows up to be his owner (and played by Armie Hammer) and who, by the standards of the day, was enlightened in his treatment of his slaves. But when his fortunes change, so do his attitudes, precipitating events which have a massive impact on Nat’s life. Instead of preaching peace, he now encourages other slaves to rebel against their owners.
Comparisons with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave are inevitable. They both deal with the same subject matter, but there’s also some significant differences. Solomon Northup in 12 Years was a free man, sold into slavery, while Nat has never known anything different. What separates the two films is their directors’ approach and the resulting tone. McQueen produced something profoundly moving and shocking, but with subtlety and delicacy.
Parker’s film is equally angry, but shouts its rage from the rooftops so loudly that it hurts your ears and sometimes you can’t hear what he’s trying to say. It doesn’t do subtlety, although we’re spared the most brutal scenes such as the rape and beating of Nat’s wife, but we do see the aftermath and the rebellion leaves little to the imagination, soaked in blood and gore. The most gruesome moment is when dental destruction – it involves a hammer and chisel – is used as a means of punishment and to make force feeding just a wee bit easier. If you’re due a visit to the dentist, you might want to postpone it a few days.
The importance of the subject weighs heavily on the film’s shoulders, making it heavy going to the point of ponderous, feeling more like three hours than its actual two. The soundtrack is overpowering, clearly thinking that it’s in an epic – which it’s not. The attempts at drawing contemporary allegories are heavy handed and Parker’s re-interpretation of the title from D W Griffiths’ 1915 epic only partly comes off. The rebellion led by Nate Turner was the first of many but, as far as the film is concerned, it’s also where today’s USA, with all its problems and contradictions, started. It’s a simplistic interpretation.
Melodramatic and clumsy, yes, but there’s no denying the film’s ambition, commitment, passion and sincerity in recounting a crucial piece of history. The sad thing is that those qualities aren’t given room to breathe, pushed to the background while Parker beats the audience over its collective head with the film’s story and moral. The result is frustration and disappointment as the movie that it could have been is tantalizingly just out of reach.
The Birth of a Nation opens in UK cinemas on Friday, 9th December.