For reasons best known to programmers of the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), The Birth of a Nation, the once promising, now troubled feature film by actor, writer and director Nate Parker was chosen as the festival’s opening film.
Because of the film’s heavy subject matter and direct confrontation with horrors of yester years past, Kene Mkparu, the CEO of Filmhouse cinemas/FilmOne distribution who midwifed the arrival of the film to Nigerian cinemas, tries to spin Birth as a fiercely original story which every African has a moral compulsion to see. Mkparu may well be right, but his bias is duly noted. He is a sweet talking salesman looking to do good business after all.
But what is there to make of The Birth of a Nation? It is hard to talk about Parker’s film these days without thinking of aborted hopes, dreams denied and the spectre of a dark past coming back to haunt. Unfair really as Birth, just like every work of art, deserves to be judged on its own terms separate from the creator’s personal foibles.
No sooner had Birth’s roll out been announced than the sordid allegations of a College age Nate Parker began to receive widespread coverage. As a 20 year old sophomore student of Pennsylvania University back in 1999, Parker was accused of drugging and raping a schoolmate. He was acquitted of all counts but the scandal has failed to go away, scoring wider publicity in the wake of the film’s release.
And for a while, Birth seemed like it would crumble under all that weight. But if Hollywood can forgive past sinners like Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson, plus perceived ones like Woody Allen, and if Donald Trump with all his baggage can be elected president of the United States, surely, some redemption awaits Nate Parker and his film.
However well Birth of a Nation does both at the box office,- it bombed at the US’ but on the awards circuit, there may still be hope,- in getting made at all, and on this level, the film has already scored a decisive victory. Or maybe two.
Nate Parker boldly reclaims the title from the 1915 Klu Klux Klan loving, racist film by D.W Griffith and positions Nat Turner’s story and its overriding significance this time as the bedrock for the birth of modern America. In the film’s post script, it is added that Nat Turner was hanged and his body flayed and churned into grease, all in a desperate bid to destroy thoughts of preserving any kind of legacy whatsoever for Turner. This is after all a man who led a slave revolt to murder white slave owners. That the world is still learning about the man in 2016 is no small victory.
Whatever comes, Parker and his team can still take comfort in that. Plus the fact that Birth does hold a Sundance film festival record where it was received enthusiastically and sparked a bidding war that ended with Fox Searchlight picking up distribution rights to the tune of 17.5milliom USD.
As a narrative, Birth has its moments. The modest budget ($8.5) shows up onscreen, in the cloistered spaces and distinct lack of spectacle,- even the battle scenes play like staged events,- but the sobering tale calls for much subtlety.
Birth starts with a young Nat Turner, taken by his mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis) to a chief priest who declares him some kind of special. He grows up as a house slave in the home of the Turners’ where his inquisitive mind is developed and he is taught to read the Bible by his mistress (Penelope Ann Miller).
Nat Turner grows up and his considerable cloak of privilege is shed gradually while travelling with his new master, Samuel (Armie Hammer) and witnessing first hand, the horrors and ugliness of the system. He wrestles with these experiences vis-a-vis the role which he has been cast in as enabler to black oppression. But it is a personal tragedy (read rape of females close to him) that really pushes Nat to flip and turns him into this thirsty, revenge seeking martyr who leads a bloody slave revolution in 1831.
There is no happy ending to this decision of Nat and his crew but they try anyway. The film attempts to turn him into a hero and glosses over questions of his sanity and those of the women in his life who serve mainly as enablers, passing his actions to blind religious convictions .
Birth shows its own share of visual horrors but some of the strongest inciting acts are implied rather than shown. Which is just as well as 12 Years a Slave has cornered the market on unrelenting torture as catalyst for sober reflection. Coming only 3 years removed from Steve McQueen’s brutal, unsparing account, a similar tack would have made Birth the ugly younger sister.
At the end of the day, Birth of Nation serves as an important history lesson, a solid profile of Nat Turner, and a state of the nation address on contemporary America’s race relations. But it never for one rises to true greatness. Parker hits all the right notes in the technical department but maybe it is the story itself, maybe it is in the telling, maybe it’s his politics, but his version of events does not quite satisfy. Or resound.
Director: Nate Parker
Screenplay: Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin