The Birth Of A Nation

The controversy surrounding the release of Nate Parker’s slave uprising drama The Birth Of A Nation, which saw rape charges that were made against the writer-director-star-producer in 1999 resurface in the media, somewhat undertsandably overshadowed the picture itself, which is earnest, well-intentioned and brimming with anger, but sadly also full of awful stylistic choices. Reclaiming the title from DW Griffith’s 1915 KKK propaganda piece, the film tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a 19th century slave rebellion in the American south. It covers similar ground to last year’s McConaughey snoozefest The Free State Of Jones, albeit importantly this time from a (still unusual, unfortunately) black perspective, with the focus largely upon black characters rather than a white saviour. Perhaps a better recent comparison with regard to the period and subject matter covered would be Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, though Birth‘s terrible, cheesy musical choices and on-the-nose dialogue mean that the two are poles apart in terms of quality. Like Jones, Parker’s film suffers from a certain torpor that it can only briefly break out of with scenes of intense violence or suffering – which are harrowing and every bit as uncomfortable to sit through as they should be, for numerous reasons – or via one of Turner’s well-delivered biblical monologues. He is good at times, and as the director he ensures that we’re nearly always watching a close-up of his anguished face as he delivers his speeches or watches as punishment is meted out to others, but some supporting cast members crumble under the weight of the material, most notably Armie Hammer, who on this evidence probably ought to stick to the lighter stuff. Overall this is an uneven film and a mixed bag; it’s an admirably well-staged piece in terms of its sets and costumes, but it would have benefitted no end from Parker taking a step back and handing directing duties over to someone else. (**)