Film Review: The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is a compelling drama that does not shy away from the realities of its narrative.

Taught to read the bible as a young boy, Nat Turner grows up to be a literate slave. When his owner Samuel falls on hard times, he accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves…

Based on the true story of Nat Turner, writer, director and star Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation tells the story of an uprising for slaves in Virginia. The film’s focus is on Nat, and thus functions as a biopic, albeit with poetic license. The film charts Nat’s progression from young boy to preacher, from mild man of God to freedom fighter.

Given Nat’s position as preacher, it is unsurprising that religion plays a large part in the film. Parker crafts the film like a biblical parable, with all the main players taking archetypal parts. But beyond this, Parker draws his main characters very well. Nat’s progression is depicted with realism. The change in him, caused by what he sees around him, appears naturalistic. The coupling between his experiences and what he reads in the bible is conveyed very well. Likewise, the change in Samuel is depicted acutely. Parker eschews one-dimensional characterisation here. Samuel is a layered character, not easily categorised.

The Birth of a Nation builds to it’s conclusion in a measured manner. Parker is very much an instigator; depicting incidents which will anger viewers. The film is not brutal in this, however. Although harrowing things take place, Parker does not feel the need to depict these overtly. The implication is there, notwithstanding, often aided by the sound design.

As the film builds to the uprising, viewers may want some catharsis. Some may be disappointed with how the final quarter of the film plays out. However, Parker settles for realism. It may not be the ending the audience root for, but it seems more realistic that events would go a certain way. Parker works in realities. He offers some respite nevertheless, with the final shots. Parker is convincing as Nat, and Armie Hammer does well in his tricky role.

The Birth of a Nation feels pertinent today, and it is a story that should be heard. Parker  makes his mark with this debut feature.

The Birth of a Nation is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2016.