Provocative onscreen and off, Nate Parker’s slave-rebellion drama pulls off a hijacking before it even begins: that of the title of DW Griffith’s 1915 silent epic movie known for celebrating the Ku Klux Klan and for demonising angry black men as rapists of white women. Parker, an actor who now writes and directs, has every intention of grabbing the live wire himself with his version of ‘The Birth of a Nation’, a lurching reversal of the power dynamic. He clearly didn’t count on his own personal history (a 1999 campus rape charge, of which he was acquitted) becoming part of that conversation. It has, though, leading to calls for a boycott of the film.
'Birth of a Nation' toggles between impressive fury and a kind of made-for-TV blandness that does Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising no favours. The movie builds via a string of borderline-sappy sequences: two happy young boys, one black, the other white, run along the idyllic Virginia plantation grounds. It’s a friendship that’s destined to change. The former grows into Nat (Parker), redeployed to hard labour in the cotton fields; the latter is Samuel (Armie Hammer), his future owner and exploiter.
In the central role, Parker does curious, complex work, leaning into Turner’s persuasive way with Bible verse, an aptitude that’s first used by his masters to quell worker discontent but is later turned against them. As a comment on religion as a funnel for righteous rage, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is often fascinating.
But when the hatchets come out for the rebellion itself (one that turns, troublesomely, on an act of sexual violence, courtesy of a leering Jackie Earle Haley), the movie grows oddly inarticulate – neither as horrific as it should be nor as cathartic, given the timeliness of material that resonates with the Black Lives Matter movement.
It may be that Nat Turner’s radicalisation and revenge (an act of ‘terror’ in the slave’s own words that resulted in over 50 dead) was meant to inspire a much wilder movie, as surreal and off-the-wall as Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ was. That’s still beyond Parker’s grasp as an artist. Still, his film exists. Merely going to see it will be a test – and one worth taking.