One of the most hotly anticipated films of the year, Birth of a Nation received its UK premiere at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival. Next to the festival-opening A United Kingdom, this was the other most culturally significant headline gala of #LFF2016, telling the tale of real-life slave Nathaniel “Nat” Turner, who led a bloody revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, 1831.
To a capacity 1600+ audience in London’s Odeon Leicester Square, festival director Clare Stewart introduced writer, director, producer and star Nate Parker (Beyond the Lights, 2014, The Great Debaters, 2007), to welcoming applause. He was soon joined by co-star Armie Hammer and cast mates Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane, 2013-17, Think Like a Man, 2012, Love and Basketball, 2000) and our own Chiké Okonkwo (Paradox, 2009, New Tricks, 2003-04). Without further ado, the lights went down and silence reigned.
The boy Nat (Tony Espinosa) plays happily around the Turner plantation and is curious about the books he sees. This leads the Mistress Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) to teach him to read the Bible, during which he spends time as a house boy whilst he ‘studies’. One night, he is subjected to a secret blessing ceremony, predicting a significant role ahead for him: he is to be a voice and an important prophet in manhood. Soon after, his father (Dwight Henry – 12 Years A Slave, 2013, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012), watches his son go hungry when delayed in getting to the single pot of food for all the slave children. He steals some paltry rations in the dead of night. But, returning home, he is spotted by slave catchers and, after a brief struggle, disaster ensues.
The non-physical terrorisation suffered by young Nat, his mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis – The Help, 2011, The Book of Negroes, 2015) and grandmother Bridget (Esther Scott – Extant, 2014, Hart of Dixie, 2011-15, The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006) at the hands of the lead catcher (a menacing Jackie Earl Haley) makes a big impression. When the master dies, his command that young Nat is returned to the field is carried out. This is where Nate Parker takes over as adult Nat who now leads Sunday worship for his fellow plantation workers. He also transports Samuel Turner (Hammer) – the single, heavy-drinking Master of the plantation, now declined into a shadow of its former glory, around town. It is on one such trip that Nat spots his future wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King – How to Get Away with Murder, Blackbox, 2014).
On observing Nat in full pastoral voice, local clergyman the Rev. Zalthall (Mark Boone Jr.) recommends that Sam loan Nat out to preach obedience and hard work to slaves on neighbouring lands for a price and the occasional bottle of brandy. Now, as Nat explores the inner workings of other plantations, not only does he begin to witness extraordinary acts of cruelty and neglect, but he hears the brutal economic reasoning of slave ownership – from rations down to punishment. Meanwhile, Sam Turner begins to reassert his place in local society. But, the necessary white man’s etiquette begins to clash with Nat’s sense of right and wrong and the well-being of the Turner slaves. His sermons begin to change, and, eventually, the consequences of a kindly act for a lowly white man and two personal family tragedies set him on the path of no return.
Parker, an accomplished and charismatic actor, gives us a nuanced Nat, as he subtly shifts from obedience and the superficial privilege of knowledge, through knowledge as a burden, to knowledge as the powerful tool that it is. The torment of the visions Nat historically reported is downplayed to give us more of a tender man – tenderness for the women he loves – his wife, mother and grandmother; the brotherhood he feels for the men he sees tortured and eventually leads. Particularly Hark (Colman Domingo – Fear the Walking Dead, Selma 2014, The Butler, 2013) and Will (Okonkwo). The sense of family with the other Turner slaves, particularly Hark’s wife Esther, and even forgiveness for his eventual betrayer. Nat was as much moved to action by what his fellow male slaves endured, as by the women. No wonder, when you capture performances the calibre of Okonkwo’s Will and Union’s Esther in relatively few scenes. Despite the rising tide of violence and injustice all around him, making inroads into his own life, it is his grandmother’s sudden absence which seems to trigger his determination to act.
Hammer, usually seen at his handsome best, foregoes a razor and a backbone to give us a quality performance as the sullen Master Sam Turner, a man wishing to be born in different times, but too weak to deal with his reality. Whilst his actions are not overlooked, there is the sense that he was not the worst of masters. But, he seals his fate when his hand is forced by the Reverend on one occasion, and by one of his lecherous guests on another.
Then there is King, also foregoing her usual HTGAWM polish, to glow instead as a natural beauty and a creature of rare grace, turning in an excellent performance that she should be proud of.
It has to be said that choosing historical material will always be restrictive for the film maker, in that anyone who knows the story, knows how it ends. The art, then, will be in how he/she takes us there. With so much African history lost, erased, or re-written by white writers, the choice of a point of view must be made, but care should be taken to balance it with a sensitivity in using dramatic license. With this in mind and, perhaps, with a little more attention to the supporting characters and intertwining stories, Parker shows a lot of potential as a story teller. He was fortunate to have cast such a talented ensemble who did so much more with their characters than what might have been on the page.
Any period piece told from a male perspective runs the risk of being dissatisfying to modern women, for obvious reasons. Parker chose to tell his version strictly from Nat Turner’s perspective and his impressions of the world around him. Thus, when a door is closed to him, it is closed to us. In my opinion, this helped to avoid any voyeuristic handling of the female slave’s predicament, trusting, instead, the performances of his actresses and meaningful editing.
Did Parker show us something new? Not really. We have seen much of what was presented here in the returned slap between Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) in In the Heat of the Night (1967), and as Django stood tall and angry from his discarded chains in Django Unchained (2012). Roots: The Saga Of an American Family (1977) gave us the same desperate sense of family and legacy which, paradoxically, seemed a little more abstract in 12 Years a Slave (2013). It also gave us the smaller acts of defiance, like Kunta Kinte running until they took his foot, or Kizzy spitting in Missy Anne’s cool drink of water.
Judging by Parker’s choice of title, he does not intend for this movie to be seen as a lesson in futility, and I would agree. If you ask yourself, when faced with a story of resistance or revolution, would you join them? the story teller has done their job if the answer is yes, whatever the consequences. Parker seeks to take you on Nat Turner’s journey and appreciate that he couldn’t have acted any other way, so that he could eventually die knowing that he had done his part to try to make the world a better place. What Parker also give us is a kind of immersive cinematography which, after a shaky start, distinctively translates a renewed sense of the silent burden of oppression, gives silent testament to the heavy heat across the land and an inkling of the absolute power dictated by the simple cotton shrub, whose only crime was to take root aplenty in the soil of America’s deep south.
Is this the definitive Nat Turner story? Of course not. It’s a Nat Turner story. Whilst Parker claims generally to have stuck to the facts, some have argued that he deviated quite a bit in the details. Will it make you emotional? You bet. Do we still need a female-centric slave narrative that confirms the legacy of strength so many of us descended through America and the Caribbean feel in our bones? Absolutely.
Should you go see The Birth Of a Nation? Yes, for all of the reasons above, and politically, if you have ever seen a film by Roman Polanski or Woody Allen.
Director: Nate Parker
Writer(s): Nate Parker | Jean McGianni Celestin
Cast: Chiké Okonkwo, Nate Parker, Aja Naomi King, Colman Domingo, Gabrielle Union
UK release date: In cinemas now. Check your local for listings