The Birth of a Nation (15)
Running time 2hrs
HAVING endured a succession of controversies, culminating in a lacklustre box office performance in the US, The Birth of a Nation arrives on these shores a cold shadow of its former self, the Oscar buzz having long since subsided. Early previews hinted at a plantation drama of epic proportions, awash with psychedelic imagery; the final product is, it must be said, a painfully unexceptional piece of filmmaking, technically accomplished but unfit to live up to the pre-release hype.
The title is an allusion to a 1915 picture of the same name, frequently lauded for its visual ingenuity but (rightly) maligned for its gloating portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. Director/star Nate Parker has quite intentionally appropriated the title, a fiendishly clever ploy – this is, after all, the story of a true-life slave revolt.
Viewed without foreknowledge of the off-screen storm that has rocked the film, it remains a sturdy, albeit disappointing work – material this inherently incendiary (the events depicted herein have never before been granted the Hollywood
treatment) was begging for a bolder, more focused approach. 2014’s 12 Years a Slave took an unambiguous, familiar yarn and, with the aid of a believable screenplay and some genuinely breathtaking visuals, made a masterpiece of it. This, it must be said, features much of the same superficial flair, all murky swampland and shots of the rolling Virginia countryside, but there’s relatively little worth talking about beneath the surface.
At its heart, Birth of a Nation is a Southern Braveheart, charting the brutalisation (and, ultimately, rebellion) of Nat Turner, an educated slave who’s master (Armie Hammer) rents him out as a preacher to neighbouring plantations. The performances are all solid (Mark Boone Junior is oddly memorable as a sneering, sarcastic reverend), but the rigidity of the whole thing hampers them considerably. It’s far too glossy for its own good – while the outrages (a beating, a force-feeding) are base and horrific in themselves, there’s nothing here to provoke the raw emotional response of 12 Years a Slave’s one-shot whipping scene. The subject matter is relevant as ever; anything short of a blunt, explicit treatment would have bordered on the offensive. But we’ve seen all of this before.
Much has been made of the movie’s final act, but it’s an altogether barren affair, with little in the way of a takeaway message (violence is sometimes justified? No such thing as a ‘good’ master?). Parker has decided wisely against a
comforting, clear-cut resolution (and this story certainly doesn’t end well, as anybody familiar with the actual events will know), but the film’s production gets the better of it, starving it of any emotion implicit in the script. The revolt, when it eventually comes, is actually the least interesting section, a limited, very awkward set-piece reminiscent, in its micro-budget staging, of a National Geographic re-enactment. Indeed, the best bits are those around the edges – the fiery sermons, Turner’s outsmarting of his white ‘betters’, Penelope Ann Miller as a benevolent(-ish) matriarch. They are not enough in themselves, however, to sustain The Birth of a Nation, and it ends just as it began – a very pedestrian, very unadventurous period piece.