Slave rebellion story The Birth Of A Nation imperfect but highly resonant
THE media firestorm which has engulfed Nate Parker – director, writer and leading actor of The Birth Of A Nation – casts a long shadow over his historical drama about an 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia.
The furore around a rape charge dating back to 1999, when Parker was a student at Penn State University and of which he was acquitted, has almost certainly torpedoed any chance of his individual contributions being part of the feverish Academy Awards conversations in the coming months.
Judging The Birth Of A Nation purely on its merits, the film provokes the same debates as 12 Years A Slave, albeit with less narrative sophistication and directorial brio.
Behind the camera, Parker is ruled by convention and he struggles to generate dramatic momentum that would make the two-hour running time feel less of a slog. However, in a year when the lack of diversity in the global film-making community has become a hot-button topic, Parker's achievements on a modest budget should not be underestimated.
In his guise as slave-turned-preacher Nat Turner, the film-maker is far more convincing, surrounding himself with an excellent ensemble cast, who treat the harrowing subject matter with the seriousness it deserves.
Slave owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) believes he is more tolerant and understanding than many of his neighbours in Southampton County. His God-fearing mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) raised young Samuel with a slave boy called Nat (Parker) as his playmate, and the imposing matriarch taught Nat to read by referring him to the word of the Bible.
Nat devours every word and grows up with a belief that he must preach to his people. He falls in love with another slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), but when she is brutally assaulted by a gang of white slave owners, led by snarling Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), poor Samuel seriously questions the order of his unforgiving world.
His friend and fellow slave Hark (Colman Domingo) suffers a similar hammer blow when his wife Esther (Gabrielle Union) is ordered to provide sexual services to one of Samuel's dinner guests.
These injustices light an unquenchable fire within Nat.
"The Lord has called me – to stand and fight!" he bellows, leading a rebellion that puts Nat on a collision course with Cobb and the pro-slavery establishment.
The Birth Of A Nation is a passionate, yet clumsily conceived, rallying cry for equality, spattered with the blood and tears of men who acknowledge that violence begets greater violence.
Parker conceives some horrifying imagery,such as Cherry's battered face after she is attacked, but he fails to elegantly weave these jolts into a fluid and constantly engaging character study.
There are noticeable lulls in the second hour and female characters are defined by their suffering, repeatedly abused in order to pour fuel on the flames of Nat Turner's supposedly righteous crusade.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION (15, 120 mins) Drama/Romance. Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo. Director: Nate Parke