#LFF 2016: The Birth of a Nation review

Sometimes there are films that have such a whirlwind of media attention and extraneous commentary that it's nigh on impossible to discuss them in isolation. Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation was already hauling around significant baggage by re-purposing the title of D.W.Griffith's 1915 film - which was technically revolutionary and morally repugnant - for a story of black rebellion. Then came its rapturous reception at its Sundance debut amidst the palpable outrage of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, subsequently marred by the ongoing tumult of charges made against Parker while he was a student.

Even if you try to ignore the constant media circus, the very fact of this film's existence - a major, ambitious work by a black filmmaker tackling the horrors of slavery - is too important to ignore. That Parker's film is bold and earnest and furious and clumsy and epic and indulgent and necessary and reductive make it a fascinating prospect, but regardless of the overall conclusion of any review, or individual opinions of those involved, it's a film that demands to be seen and discussed as widely as possible. The story of the failed rebellion against plantation owners in the American south, led by Nat Turner (Parker stars as well as directs), is not a simplistic one, but one with undeniable power.

Parker is probably a better actor than a director at this stage - this is his debut behind the camera - and he imbues Turner with terrific internal conflict and foreboding tragedy. Having begun the journey to literacy in secret as a young boy, his owner's wife (Penelope Ann Miller) took it upon herself to teach him to read using the bible and decades later, he would break his back in the fields during the week and preach to his fellow slaves on a Sunday. His young new master, Samuel (Armie Hammer) sees an opportunity for extra income in hard times and loans Nat out to other plantations with the assumption that his sermons will quieten restless slaves. Instead, his exposure to the wide-ranging brutality of other plantations have the opposite effect.

The Birth of a Nation is itself a rallying cry, a bloodcurdling scream against the treatment of Turner and his people - some of it portrayed here with an unblinking eye and to stomach-churning effect - and one that is equally aimed at a broken America that has endured countless daily tragedies involving African-Americans in recent years. Admittedly, Parker's methods can at times be heavy-handed. A stained-glass cross hangs distractingly over what might have been one of the film's most powerful scenes, pseudo-mystical visions never conjure the atmosphere or portent that they're intended to. A romance between Turner and Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is by turns understated and poignant, then finally overly sentimental.

The immediate catalyst behind his eventual rebellion - far from being predestined - is personal vengeance; whether that undermines or humanises the cause will be up to the individual viewer. In the hands of a more proficient, more visionary, or arguably braver filmmaker, this story may have resulted in a masterpiece, but subjective assessment of quality pales into insignificance compared to the urgency and passion of this endeavour which remains gut-wrenchingly powerful, not least through its chilling and upsetting climax.

The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 5-16 October. Book your tickets at bfi.org.uk/lff.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson


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