100 years after D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation comes this slavery drama of the same name – not a remake, but a symbolic appropriation of the racist film’s title; The Birth of a Namesake.
Nate Parker writes, directs and stars as Nat Turner: an enslaved preacher who led a slave rebellion in 1831. Parker documents the evils of slavery in a way that’s justifiably bleak and unflinchingly affecting, but cannot escape unfavourable comparisons to the masterpiece that is 12 Years a Slave.
Where The Birth of a Nation stands out is its discussion of religion, as it’s Turner’s Christianity that compels him first to accept his bondage and then to rebel. The best scenes see him preaching in defence of servitude and agonising over the pain it causes his fellow slaves.
Rather than causing a crisis in faith, this seems only to strengthen his religious resolve. In a pivotal scene, Turner proclaims that the Bible makes no such case for slavery; rather, it calls for freedom and rebellion. The film seems to support this renewed religiosity, even though the institution of slavery was shackled so strongly to Christianity that any attempt to separate them is doomed. The tension this creates is arguably the film’s greatest strength. It lays bare both Turner’s courage and the bloodshed that ensues, leaving plenty of room for interpretation.
Although it falters in its third act, The Birth of a Nation is a strong historical picture packed with religious symbolism, mythic storytelling and great performances from Parker, Mark Boone Junior and unsavoury-character actor par excellence Jackie Earle Haley. The use of music is also striking, most notably Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’.
Like its 1915 namesake, this film portrays the birth of a nation in which black people are subservient to white – but only this version recognises that as a bad thing.