STUNNER: Gabrielle Union at the premiere of The Birth of a Nation
IF YOU haven’t made time to watch Birth of a Nation at the cinema, you almost surely haven’t escaped the conversations surrounding the film’s director and star Nate Parker (The Great Debators, Non-Stop). Without re-hashing the public scrutiny surrounding accusations made against Parker at university and his subsequent acquittal, A Birth of a Nation has been widely discussed in the UK long before the British release.
The American slavery-time biopic which features Hollywood’s Gabrielle Union is finally out in cinemas nationwide so at last we can go and view the movie itself; which is, historically a narrative of much greater concern than any chatter surrounding Parker.
The film is loosely based on the true story of Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker) who was born into slavery before becoming a self-selected leader of an uprising against brutal and de-humanising slave masters in the 1830s.
The tale is set in the American state of Virginia which borders North Carolina and Kentucky in the deep south and does a fair job of showcasing the violence and disdain inflicted in the region by whites against blacks. Younger viewers who haven’t seen anything quite like it will no doubt have their stomach turned by sickening scenes involving whipping and other forms of torture against Turner and his peers; as well as the eventual blood shed by axe-wielding rebel slaves.
For viewers who have ‘seen it all before’, the mental and physical pain of the African (‘American’) characters serves as a reminder of what generations before endured; from routine gang rape to walking on eggshells as the man of your house is demeaned as ‘boy’ in public.
Parker does a good job of contrasting two climates – the first climate a relatively calm and at times joyous one, complete with a young Turner playing and running with the son of his white ‘owner’ before the latter is cheerfully called home for dinner. Scenes from the second climate explain, with a very sudden burst of action; why the first part of the film was bordering slow and uneventful. The rebellion, although planned, reaches its own tipping point without much warning as the pace quickens.
Two important narratives that have had little exposure in the arts are the foundation of the film – the narrative of 18th century revolutionary Africans in America and the narrative of black views on plantation Christianity. We would have liked to see a deeper exploration of both – perhaps a super-long film or two totally separate films are the only solutions that will satiate audiences fully.
The main character’s childhood was underpinned by traditional rituals that many geographically-displaced Africans of this generation cannot begin to imagine as existing within the recent memory of close relatives; like they did for the young Turner’s grandmother. As well as tribal physical artefacts handed-down from grandparents, Turner finds solace and later strength in a copy of the Bible given to him by the plantation owner’s wife or “missus”.
With not enough time in a normal film duration to explore it, Parker touches on the myth that Christianity is a white man’s religion; placing a childhood Turner underneath a picture of a blonde-haired ‘Jesus’ as he memorises scripture.
There was no mention of historical and Biblical evidence which tells the world that as early as the book of Genesis, African characters were instrumental in spreading the Christian message from neighbouring middle eastern regions (who had not a blonde hair in sight) to all parts of the world.
To expect any director to explore these complex issues in two hours is probably unreasonable so as a compromise I would have been happy with Parker just focusing on one main narrative (rebellion or Christianity) rather than leaving us wanting just a bit more. This ‘more’ would extend to the women in the film who didn’t have their individual personalities or roles in the rebellion explored in much detail. To know more about what Parker’s take was on the rebel leaders’ state of mind as they progressed through each stage would have been more than welcome.
Familiar slavery-era tropes run through the film to further remind us of their connection with life within the black diaspora today - men and boys who are raised not to look people in the eye, the unique embarrassment felt when a white person comments on an ‘undisciplined’ child along with many more elements of everyday life.
An abrupt end to this well-paced portrayal of a notable figure does its best to remind us, ultimately, of the fragility of the realities we have been fortunate enough to construct for ourselves in 2016 and beyond.
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