The Birth of a Nation (US-Canada 2016)

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This film is now getting a general release in the UK. I saw it at the Leeds International Film Festival. The Catalogue quoted ‘The Playlist’,

“In script and performance, the film is an articulate howl of anguish and rage given depth by a discerning comprehension of the ways various communities can rely on faith for very different means.”

However, Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound took a rather different tack, savaging the film in his review. Pinkerton has form as he equally savaged Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. In both cases he has a certain amount of justification and I agree with many of his criticisms. But I also have strong reservations about his critique. For one he mixes ‘art’ and ‘artist’ in his comments: and the relevance of this escaped me. More importantly he does not discuss the substance of the film, concentrating on its form and style.

But it is the substance of the film that makes it both very interesting and important.

“Nate Parker’s directorial début is a searing account of the life of Nat Turner, the enslaved African-American who spearheaded an insurrection in 1831. Turner believed that revolutionary violence would awaken others to the infernal mistreatment of slaves, and he died for this cause.” (LIFF Catalogue).

I would think that this slave rebellion is not that well known in the UK but it would be in the United States. I read an account some years ago in William Styron’s fine but controversial novel ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ (1966). Turner was born into slavery but grew up literate and with an intimate knowledge of the bible. He frequently had what he believed were visions and was an influential figure among the slaves. In August 1831 he led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. About 60 white people were killed before the rebellion was suppressed by armed whites supported by troops. About 50 black rebels were killed but subsequently several hundred black slaves were murdered by outraged and fearful white mobs.

Styron’s novel concentrated on the rebellion and presented this through the voice of Turner himself. The Birth of a Nation works as a biopic presenting Turner’s life from childhood to the actual rebellion. The insurrection only comes at the end of the film and I was expecting it to be treated in much greater detail than the film offers. We only see a couple of deaths until the confrontation with the armed whites and the military. Much of the film is given over to Tuner’s life and his religion. The visions that he experienced are not really adequately presented. And there is an amount of screen time devoted to his romance and marriage to a  fellow slave. There are plot motivations for his turn to violence but the film does not really evoke the apocalyptic drive that seems to have motivated the historical Turner.

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The film is conventional in form and style: note the film is presented by Fox Searchlight. Whilst there is onscreen violence it seems aestheticised by the widescreen cinematography and production design: emphasised by the accompanying score which is often rather lush. The acting also seems conventional and dutiful rather than impassioned.

The director, Nate Parker (who also plays Turner), references 12 Years a Slave in an interview. One can see the influence but whilst that film tended to anaesthetise the violence it also had a strong sense of place and character. Farther back there is the influence of the televisions series Roots but that drama offered a much stronger representation of the grim reality of slave life.

The Festival Catalogue quotes Parker:

“The thing I wanted to get right was Nat Turner’s humanity. That this was a man. In history he’s painted as a religious fanatic that just wanted to kill people. I think that was the narrative that was important for white supremacy and the safety and conservation of racism in that time.”

Certainly my memory of the Styron novel is not that of a religious fanatic. And in ‘humanising’ Turner, Parker seems to have reduced him to the conventional. So the film is a disappointment. However as far as I am aware this is the only film or television version of the important historical event available in the UK. And the film is sufficiently well done to hold the attention.

It does not though live up to its title. This is presumably a riposte to the seminal but racist film by D. W. Griffith from 1915 of the same title. But a riposte already exists in the form of Oscar Micheaux’s masterwork Within Our Gates (1920). As far as I am aware there have not been theatrical screenings of this film in the UK. I have been fortunate to see it twice at European Festivals. Perhaps the BFI could arrange for a theatrical format version as part of its ‘Black Stars’ programme. And it would be good to also be able to see the documentary directed by Charles Burnett for Public Television in the USA, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003).

 

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