DIR/WRI: Nate Parker • PRO: Nate Parker, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert and Preston L. Holmes • DOP: Elliot Davis • ED: Steven Rosenblum • MUS: Henry Jackman • CAST: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone JR., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esthey Scott, Roger Geunveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley
A little over one hundred years ago D.W Griffith released a film that would become one of the most controversial pieces of cinema in history; a film which refined and informed harmful racial stereotyping for years to come, a film so divisive it would be used as a recruitment tool for the Klu Klux Klan, a film so inflammatory that to this day the screening of it is still protested. This film was The Birth of a Nation.
Nate Parker’s 2016 period piece uses the title of Griffith’s film purposefully, and is a strong, poignant, and very important response to its namesake, and to the odiously racist rhetoric it inspired. Visually stunning, yet refusing to lapse into temporally removed cinephilia, Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is based on the story of Nat Turner (played by Parker himself), an enslaved man who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. A well-learned preacher, Turner was rented out by his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), as a tool to subdue so-called unruly slaves on the plantations of other white farmers. Strained by the hate and violence carried out against the enslaved people of these plantations, and spurred on by his religion, Turner was inspired to orchestrate a rising in the hopes of achieving freedom.
The representations within the film importantly work to undo harmful stereotypes surrounding blackness. Parker plays Turner as a gentle, respectful man, turning away from the perpetuation of black masculinity as animalistic and sexually aggressive. The film gives a voice to a multiplicity of black viewpoints, turning away from the tokenistic trope of burdening one person with the task of representing a whole people. This works to rehumanise a people stripped of personhood, abused and treated worse than animals. However, the film is not without its explicit depictions of racism and racial violence, with one particularly harrowing scene showing a slave owner knocking out the teeth of a chained slave in order to force-feed him. Micro-aggressions of power are present throughout, largely as an exploration of the anxiety of failing white planters, a group represented by Samuel Turner, who is alcohol-dependant and desperate to cling to his position in society.
A purposeful focus is placed on close-ups, on capturing the richness of skin and the depth of emotion displayed by the actors. The intensity of the focus is reminiscent of the close-ups in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, surmounting to the same attempt to capture the human soul in all of its rawness, a focus which fits closely to the expression of Turner’s strong religious faith.
Unlike Griffith’s film, which was based on a series of ahistorical novels (written by white supremacist Thomas Dixon Jr. in the hopes of inspiring a race war), Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is inspired by a true event, and in this way takes its place within the tradition of slave stories. Parker positions the film as part of a wider conversation on racism, as the beginning of a struggle still present today in a different form. In this way, it avoids the problematic effect of a post-racial narrative which implies that racism is simply a problem of the past. Conversely, the film stands as a reminder that racism remains a prevalent problem, both worldwide and within the United States today, with the line “they’re killing people just for being black”, delivered by Turner’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), echoing a mantra still heard today.
In light of the controversy surrounding Parker, the film has suffered at the American box office via an understandable boycott. Standing alone, however, The Birth of a Nation is an important re-purposing of a historically racist precedent, a film which challenges previously established and damaging modes of racial representation, and a piece of cinema well worth viewing upon release.
Sadhbh Ní Bhroin
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Birth of a Nation is released 2nd December 2016