It is difficult to make a film about the single most horrendous thing humans have done to other humans, and leave an audience untouched. The Birth of a Nation, with its nod to the 1915 racist film of the same name, cannot but force you into questioning how white men were ever capable of such despicable acts, and it’s effective in its delivery, although at times not the most imaginative.
The film follows the true story of Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher who becomes enraged by the acts of the slave owners and organises a brief insurrection in Virginia. Writer-director Nate Parker also acts in the film, as this is his passion project which he started back in 2009. Interestingly, William Styron (of Sophie’s Choice fame) had infamously written a book about Nat Turner, for which he was largely chastised by the civil rights movement. Nate Parker more than once mentioned he was here to rewrite what the white man could not: a story of black rebellion against injustice.
It is hard to look at The Birth of a Nation objectively. For one, the legal case brought to the limelight recently, in which Turner had allegedly raped his college girlfriend, left many feeling dubious about Turner’s character (does that matter? Should it? But what about Woody Allen and Polanski?). It opens a sexually deviant can of worms that one doesn’t quite know what to do with. Secondly, the reactions to the film have been so utterly polarised (and published, which is why I remind myself never to read anything about a film until way after I’ve seen it and my opinion has crystallised) that I can’t but feel torn about where my own judgment sits.
I have to say, however, that throughout the two hours I sat in that cinema, I was transfixed by the tale. Even though I can see how the film went somewhat through the narrative motions and fell into one too many film school clichés, it still transported me somewhere, it still touched me. Tears fell. I cannot for the life of me attack a film that brings tears to my cold eyes.
And yet! It is clear that the obvious comparison (12 Years A Slave) isn’t a fair one, and that next to Steve McQueen’s studied, angrily subdued gaze, this film pales, if not to oblivion. But even though it may lack in the surprising elements brought out so brilliantly by McQueen, Turner still made a solid film that stands.