Film

Holy war against slave trade in 19th Century America
The Birth of a Nation (15A)

A scene from The Birth of a Nation.

There’s only so much suffering a body can take. “The  sword of the Lord will bear down on our enemies,” says black preacher Nat Turner (Nate Parker) in this compelling saga about a violent slave revolt in America’s antebellum south in 1831. 

His original message of peace becomes transmuted into an ‘angel of death’ clarion call for retribution against his supremacist overlords. One is reminded of the contemporary term ‘jihad’.

12 Years a Slave was stomach-churning. This visceral biopic – reprising the title of D.W. Griffiths’ 1915 racist epic to take an ironic sideswipe at it – emulates it. 

A tortuous paean to black rights, it has some very graphic scenes depicting a world of pain where white splendour rides roughshod over black poverty, adding humiliation and gratuitous servility into the mix. 

It’s only a matter of time until the powder keg that is Turner’s mind explodes. When it does, it carries in its wake a mini-revolt against the powers-that-be which was always going to have only one outcome: serial executions.

Substitute America in 1831 for the Holy Land in 33 AD and you have a corollary to the death of Christ. There’s a ‘scourging at the pillar’ scene; we see Turner in cruciform pose afterwards. He walks to his Golgotha to be hanged. The parallels are obvious but not strained.

Jesus advised turning the other cheek. Turner is recruited to do likewise but goes on a rampage in the last quarter of the film that seems at odds with his earlier rhetoric. 

We can only understand it in the context of the summary slaughter of his brethren which he’s witnessed almost from the cradle. 

The problem with most sagas is that they find it difficult to stay in the moment and still convey the sense of a panoramic sweep. Parker – directing and writing the film as well as playing the main role - avoids that difficulty with some seamless time leaps. 

Agonising

These were agonising times and he doesn’t attempt to water them down. This is war in the raw, mano a mano as the matadors say. 

At times I had to look away from the screen. At other times I was riveted to it. In the end you feel purged. Turner’s army of equally committed souls win the battle but lose the war. 

And yet their actions had repercussions down the line, like any botched revolution which paves the way for a future independence.

There are a few glitches: a lack of pace in the middle, a few anachronisms (did people really say ‘Hi’ in 1831?) and perhaps 15 minutes could have been shaved off the running time. 

Clint Walker lookalike Armie Hammer is impressive as Turner’s ambivalent owner, as is Aja Naomi King as his brutalised wife. Turner plays fast and loose with history but in the process serves up a smorgasbord of atrocity that will stay with you. Not for the faint-hearted.

Very Good ****