The Birth of a Nation
Here’s a story that dates back over 50 years. Not slavery, or the violent revolution of Nat Turner, but the Hollywood vanity project. This is where a major star, like Kevin Spacey or John Travolta, decide to push all their famous weight into making a “personal” project, that is constructed around improving their own image – which, to everyone outside their personal bubble, seems absurd. How else to explain Beyond the Sea or Battlefield Earth? And yet, just because a film is born out of vanity – from an industry where vanity is basically currency – doesn’t mean it will bad. After all, few call Orson Welles’s debut a vanity project, in spite of the fact that it was written, directed by and starring Welles, and was used to launch his career into the stratosphere. Because Citizen Kane was very good.
Birth of a Nation is not very good, but it is not very bad, either. It is a vanity project – distorted by Nate Parker’s fluctuating public image – which does attempt to tackle a timely issue, with bold, if adversely blunt, force.
Re-appropriating its title from DW Griffith’s 1915 epic – whose technical merits are mitigated by its unforgivable racism – the film follows Nat Turner (Parker) who, in 1831, instigated a slave uprising across plantations in the south. They managed to kill 57 whites until they were caught, and led to the deaths of 200 slaves – not to mention legislative measures against slavery, many fearful of an encore. Turner’s journey towards violence is illustrated in full. As a child, he is told that he has been chosen by God; he learns to read, becomes a preacher, and his owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) is paid to rent out his word of God to other plantations.
Shock tactics are used to depict the violence endured by slaves – a gory scene involving teeth is hard to endure – that marks Parker’s general reluctance to flinch. Though there is an unfortunately cheap quality to much of the scenes outside of (overwhelmingly male) domestic drama; the climax, in particular, borders on silly. It also skims over the controversies in Turner’s actions, the kind Martin Luther King would have condemned. For many, it was a stupid plan that got innocent people killed.
Much as Mel Gibson made Braveheart, Nate Parker has made Slaveheart – more noble in intention, perhaps, but still flawed.
The Birth of a Nation is released nationwide on 9th December 2016.
Watch the trailer for The Birth of a Nation here: