Tuesday 17 October 2017

True story gets lost in translation

Nate Parker's ambitious historical drama bites off more than it can chew

True story: Nate Parker stars in and directs 'The Birth of a Nation'
True story: Nate Parker stars in and directs 'The Birth of a Nation'

Paul Whitington

A century ago, as war raged in far-flung Europe, early American cinema-goers were presented with a stirring vision of their country's founding. Hailed as a masterpiece, DW Griffiths' 'Birth of a Nation' showed how European settlers had tamed the west and quelled unrest among unruly black slaves while turning America into the land of the free.

Annoyingly, it is in some ways a great film, but is also an ethically reprehensible one: white actors in black-face portrayed African-Americans as slavering goons, and the cherished white fear of the prowling Negro rapist was given a shameful but influential outing.

Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation was presumably intended as a kind of riposte to Griffith's nonsense. Instead of racism and rumour, we would have the real story of Nat Turner, a southern American slave who led an uprising against unimaginably cruel masters. Slavery is a hot topic in America at the moment, given the current toxicity of race relations, and Parker's film looked well placed to capitalise on the zeitgeist. There was talk of Oscars: then, an inconvenient truth surfaced.

In August of this year, details emerged of a 1999 criminal case involving Parker and the film's co-author, Jean McGianni, who were accused, though later acquitted, of raping a female student while attending Pennsylvania State University. The woman later died by suicide.

Parker's response to media questions about the case was chippy, and defensive, and the fact that his film included a gratuitous and historically inaccurate rape didn't help matters. The Birth of a Nation bombed at the US box office, and has become the film that dare not speak its name.

But here it is, and what are we to think of it? It begins strongly enough, at the start of the 19th century, as a little boy is inducted into an ancient African religion at a secret slave camp-fire. It's Nat Turner, who proves to be an exceptional child, clever enough to teach himself to read, a talent encouraged by the wife of his owner, who gives him a bible.

When Nat (Parker) grows up, he develops a flair for preaching, and soon his young master Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer) is driving him to nearby plantations to spread the word of God to other slaves. Nat's owner gets paid for this, as the plantation owners hope godliness will make their slaves more biddable, but the unconscionable brutality Nat witnesses begins to radicalise him.

When his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is raped and beaten half to death by a local slave catcher, it's the last straw for Nat, who decides to lead a violent rebellion. That revolt would last two days, include several pitched battles and claim the lives of more than 60 white people, but Nate Parker crams it all into the last 15 minutes of his two-hour film.

Why? Bad pacing in part, but also because of Parker's unspoken agenda.

Nat Turner should by all means be celebrated as a hero, an early African-American leader of exceptional fortitude and bravery, but this film seems intent on portraying him as a kind of black Christ. His distaste for violence is constantly emphasised, and after he finally stoves his owner's head in, Nat goes outside and vomits.

Messianic references are constant: there's even a Judas, a young boy who spills the beans to curry favour with his employer. The film's closing scene, though powerful, might as well have been staged on Golgotha. Parker's Turner is a saint, pure and simple.

But the real Nat, whose blind fury after years of brutalisation can only be imagined, admitted to killing women and children during the revolt, and believed his actions were sanctioned by God. There's no evidence of that inspired zealot in this production, which is beset by woolly direction and overbearing sentiment from the start. Parker's direction is messy, and he might have considered casting someone more commanding than himself in the lead role. It's a well-meaning, entertaining but inept drama, so much less powerful than Steve McQueen's more cool-headed and harrowing '12 Years a Slave'.

The Birth of a Nation

(15A, 120mins)

3 Stars

Films coming soon...

Rogue One (Felicity Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn, Diego Luna); Ballerina (Elle Fanning, Maddie Ziegler, Dane DeHaan); Uncle Howard (Howard Brookner, Jim Jarmusch, William Burroughs); The Black Hen.

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