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.

BFI London Film Festival 2016 Launch

Today saw the launch of the BFI London Film Festival 2016. This year’s programme is bursting with cinematic delights. There are more galas than in previous years, and screen talk participants include Werner Herzog and Paul Verhoeven. Here are some of the films to look out for at London Film Festival 2016.

Headline Galas

The Birth of a Nation

The London Film Festival 2016’s opening gala A United Kingdom had already been announced, the Scorsese-produced, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire looks like a lot of fun. Elsewhere, plenty of hotly anticipated films including La La Land, Arrival and The Birth of a Nation. Writer-director Nate Parker also stars in the story of an enslaved preacher who led a revolt in 1830s Virginia. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is also a headline gala. An adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, the film stars Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o.

Strand Galas and Special Presentations

The Handmaiden

This year sees additional galas, which will take place on a purpose built venue on the Strand. They include The Handmaiden, from director Chan-wook Park. The film looks as sumptuous as Park’s previous film Stoker. Miles Teller stars in Bleed For This, based on the true story of boxer Vinny Paziena. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is the Sonic Gala. The hip hop musical features Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson. Andrea Arnold’s American Honey and Ava DuVernay’s The 13th are among the special presentations this year.

Official Competition

My Life As A Courgette

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is amongst the Official Competition at London Film Festival 2016. Staring Isabelle Huppert, the film is an adaptation of a Philippe Dijan novel. Terence Davies’ A Quiet Presentation is a biopic of Emily Dickinson staring Cynthia Nixon. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, about a young man struggling with his sexuality in 1980s Miami, looks like a great watch. In the First Feature Competition, Porto sees one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, whilst animation My Life As A Courgette looks like a lot of fun. David Lynch: The Art Life is among the contenders for the Documentary Competition, as well as The Graduation. The latter is a documentary about a prestigious film school in Paris. Chasing Asylum, about the Australian government’s immigration policies, seems very topical.

Strands

The Salesman

The Love strand features Lovesong, director So Yong Kim’s film about a lonely young mother. It stars Jena Malone and Riley Keough. Highlights in the Debate category include Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman. A Separation‘s Farhadi has already won awards at Cannes. Mindhorn features in the Laugh strand. The film stars Julian Barratt as a washed-up 1980s TV detective. Dare features Christine, starring Rebecca Hall as the notorious television journalist. Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog looks to be a highlight of the Thrill section, with Nicholas Cage starring alongside Willem Dafoe. Another David Lynch connection (Cage and Dafoe starred in Lynch’s Wild at Heart), Blue Velvet Revisited, features in the Cult strand.

I Am Not A Serial Killer

Cult also features I Am Not A Serial Killer, based on the young adult novel. The Innocents looks to be a highlight of the Journey strand. Anne Fontaine’s film is about a young doctor working for the French Red Cross in 1945. London Town, a coming of age film set in 1979 London, features in the Sonic strand. The Family strand includes Rock Dog, an animation featuring the voices of J.K. Simmons and Luke Wilson. Finally, Experimenta includes Have You Seen My Movie?; a must-see for cinema fans.

The full London Film Festival 2016 programme can be viewed here. The BFI London Film Festival runs from 5th-16th October 2016.