The Birth of a Nation is director Nate Parker’s emotional condemnation of America’s brutal history of slavery through the true story of one man who led a rebellion.
Strange Fruitby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Director Nate Parker has appropriated the title of DW Griffiths’ Ku Klux Klan-heavy – racist – silent epic to create his own violent reworking of The Birth of a Nation as seen from the point of view of the black slaves who were just as much America’s midwives as their white compatriots.
It’s based on the true story of the slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831, led by Nat Turner (played by Parker himself). Though it only lasted 48 hours, scores of white people were killed by his group of rebels and hundreds of black people killed in reprisal, but it was a contributory factor to the anti-slavery movement that led to the Civil War and the eventual abolition of slavery 35 years later.
Marked out from childhood as someone special – unusually, we see a traditional African ceremony held by slaves in secret in the woods – Nat grows up on a plantation where slaves are treated fairly for that time. He learns to read and is favoured by the owner, Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) – as boys they played together. Inspired by the Bible, which is the only reading matter he’s allowed, he leads a privileged existence and becomes a preacher to his fellow slaves. When there is slave unrest in neighbouring plantations, he is hired out to preach submission to them. But when he sees the inhuman conditions obtaining on other plantations, he realises he has been living in a kind of fool’s paradise, that the Bible verses can be interpreted in two ways – as a message to rise up as well as to submit.
Slaves suffer horrific lashings, sadistic punishments, separation from their families, rape and degradation. Slaves can also have courtships, marry (the love of Nat’s life is Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and have children. After a punishment that is a symbolic crucifixion and resurrection, Parker’s film is brutal and oppressive as it moves to its inevitable tragic conclusion. There is graphic violence and slaughter as the two sides – slaves vs slave owners and the British army – clash. To see the strange fruit hanging from the trees in the aftermath, while Nina Simone interprets Billie Holiday’s iconic song on the soundtrack, captures the outpouring of anger and injustice. Yet somehow it seems as if 12 Years A Slave set the bar for visualisation of that inexcusable period and it’s hard not to see the era through the prism of Steve McQueen’s film and compare Parker’s unfavourably with it, though it is a desperately heartfelt and moving take on this terrible history.
The Birth of a Nation screens on 11, 12 and 13 October 2016 as a Headline Gala at the BFI London Film Festival.