Dir: Nate Parker
Starr: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Mark Boone, Jr.
Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 1)
Until a long shadow was cast over this film by the disinterring of a 1999 rape case brought against its director, star and producer Nate Parker, it seemed certain that this latest trawl through America’s cruel history of black slavery would be festooned with nominations come award season. The controversy that has, to some degree, decisively altered the film’s reception may well have done Parker an undeserved favour. This The Birth of a Nation, by removing itself to the 19th century and narrating the radicalisation of Nat Turner, leader of a black slave rebellion, wants to reach back to dislodge and disrupt Griffiths’ unfortunately canonical Klan paean, but despite its director’s grandiosity of design the film’s delivery is pure exploitation, and all the better for that. Without wishing to seem contrarily reductive I believe that Parker is intentionally playing with the same fire that lit up Mandingo (1975), only with the camera’s appraising eye being aligned with the faith, integrity and righteousness of the black souls brutalised by a corrupt and corrupting system of capital and exploitation. Although the film frequently strays into a visual poetry verging on the ridiculous (bleeding corn cobs), Parker still manages to deliver a film of implacable fury, driven forward with a wrathful vengeance and a wonderfully concrete sense of slavery as an all-encompassing cancer at the heart of Southern US society.
The film opens with a scene that immediately establishes both the subliminal structuring of exploitation horror, as well as the vital importance of faith in destiny. Amidst a swirl of ghoulish female apparitions the young Nat is conferred the status of ‘a chosen one’ by a seer and slave elder. The presence of three raised nubs upon the centre of his breastbone, is read as a sign of his selection by a higher power. Throughout the film there is an egocentricity at work, which could just be part and parcel of the biopic element of the film, but that, nonetheless makes so many of Turner’s fellow slaves enablers of his self-realisation as a strong, charismatic leader. When Nat’s wife Cherry is gang-raped by a group of slave hunters, led by the same man who was wounded by Nat’s father and who will go on to become a nemesis in the march on Jerusalem at the film’s end, vengeance is a male prerogative and source of Turner’s empowerment
The historic Nat Turner was born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Southampton County, Virginia and lived almost his entire life enslaved to the Turner family in this area. In Parker’s film the young Nat is frequently seen to be encouraged to believe he is ‘special’, even having a different status foist upon him by Penelope Ann Miller’s Elizabeth Turner, the lady of the house, who marvels at the young boy’s autodidactic abilities. Later a Reverend Zalthall, played as a wonderfully unctuous and uncouth grotesque by Mark Boone, Jr, sees a money-making opportunity in getting Nat, who now preaches the Bible to his fellow slaves on the plantation, to deliver sermons in support of the slave-owner’s prerogative. It is in delivering these sermons to plantations where the slaves are held in abject conditions, far more degrading than that which Nat has hitherto experienced on the Turner farm, that accelerates Turner’s radicalisation. What good is it to be ‘special’ and ‘chosen’ within a debased and godless world?
Another key element of the film’s early construction is the way in which Parker makes Nat the witness to brutal acts of violence that frequently go unacknowledged as such by white society. The young Nat is shown to bear witness to his father’s possible execution, and the fact that his father eludes this fate at the whim of a bunch of white slave hunters by killing and wounding them, seems to be Parker’s way of planting the first seed of violent reaction – violence as a means of self-defence, countering the unjust violence of an oppressor. Later, the older Nat gazes upon the hollowed-out skull of a dead slave lying by the roadside, whilst his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) dozes on the carriage beside him, oblivious to this atrocity they are passing.
The true horror of Parker’s depiction of slavery can be found in his blunt use of extremities. It is unsurprising that Parker thanks Mel Gibson in the end credits of the film, as this use of extremities is reminiscent of both Braveheart (1995) and The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Turner family, under Elizabeth’s watchful eye, take Nat into the house, educate him, ‘civilise’ him, even. The Turner homestead is a brightly lit, airy and spacious place of order and cleanliness. By comparison the slave holdings on the plantation are shot in shades of deadening grey. They are dark, dank and dusty spaces, cramped and contingent. Nat observes this dichotomy, but as a child he does not feel its injustice, or how the former is built upon the degradation housed in the latter. This is because the Turner’s continue to fuel his ‘special’ status, but in a way that divorces him from his family and community. On the death of Elizabeth’s husband Benjamin, Nat is thrown back into the exploitative world of the cotton field, whereupon he grows into the favoured slave of the new plantation owner Samuel Turner, his once playmate. The insulation that the Turner’s are seen to offer Nat and his fellow slaves is in the way they do not behave with the brute odiousness of so many of the other slave-owners presented in the film. Yet their adherence to, and support of, a societal structure predicated upon systemic exploitation of human labour, policed through pure racial prejudice, makes the limited protections they offer their slaves all the more galling.
Parker exposes the rotten nature of the whole system by detailing the corruption and dissolution of the Turner family as a direct parallel of Nat Turner’s growing consciousness and radicalisation. In this regard, I had absolutely no problem with the venal portrait of white Southerners throughout the film. They are meant to be horrific, as the economic system they have concocted is corrupting and monstrous. As the film progresses the ‘benevolence’ of the Turners is shown to be predicated upon the accumulation of capital, and the position of power and authority that gives them. As Samuel sinks into inebriate dissolution, so the Turner plantation must adhere more strictly to the prevailing societal norms. Benevolence is a charitable return on profits accrued.
In this regard, why should Parker bother with the cosy supposed nuances of 12 Years a Slave (2013), whose white racial violence is depicted as belonging to a rotten subsection of society and is ultimately combatted through the white consciousness raising of black suffering, as embodied by the deferential martyr Solomon Northup. This soft cinematic rhetoric, that locates morality in the sadism of a tastefully framed whip crack, is of no interest to Parker. White racial violence isn’t a subsection of Southern society, but an integral part of it, and the only source of all possible moralities. When Parker chooses to insert a written passage of the bible in to the centre of his Turner’s radicalisation process, the words stretch in relation to his wider understanding and interpretation of them. Words have helped Turner to expand his consciousness, and through an understanding of violence those words can attempt to help him allude the servitude of his slave readings. It is a neat nod to one of the most memorable sequences from Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcom X (1992)
Like Gibson and Griffiths before him the factual and historic inaccuracies of Parker’s plot are to some degree permissible when considering what the overall narrative effect is meant to be. I find quite a bit of bite in Parker’s closing shot, particularly considering the presence of Ed Zwick among the executive producers on the project. Zwick is the epitome of the well-meaning, thoughtful, liberal Hollywood rendering of contentious political histories. His Glory (1989) was a textbook example of how Hollywood superficially covers a significant incident in American history, that highlights the struggle of African-Americans, but ensure that struggle is only really rendered visible through the intervention of ‘progressive’ well-meaning white men. In the final CGI-morphed moment of A Birth of a Nation, Parker presents us with a young boy who bore witness to Nat Turner’s hanging, now brandishing a rifle in the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and charging toward the camera. It is a bold and powerful closing gambit, that seems to quietly mock Zwick’s rootless examination of black Northern soldiers from the same regiment. Here is Nat Turner’s provocative legacy, alive and well in 2016.