The Birth of a Nation (4 stars)

The Birth of a Nation

LFF 2016: Searing slavery-themed biopic from Nate Parker, featuring Armie Hammer

Smartly repurposing the title of DW Griffith's 1915 epic, which featured a heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, this biopic of Nat Turner – written, directed, produced by and starring Nate Parker – gives us true heroism, bloody and bittersweet though it is, as we see the aforementioned firebrand inspire a doomed slave rebellion in 19th century Virginia.

Marked out as special when his mistress Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) discovers he can read, Nat (played by Tony Espinosa as a child, Parker as an adult) grows up to be a preacher. His words bring hope to his fellow plantation slaves – not least to Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who he saves from sexual subjugation and who will eventually become his wife. Seen as someone that keeps his people 'in check', Nat is loaned out by Elizabeth's son Samuel (Armie Hammer) to local landowners who make him read passages from the Bible that encourage slaves to submit to their masters. Haunted by the brutal treatment he witnesses on his travels, our protagonist plots a daring uprising.

When The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance in January it provoked a bidding war and became an early Oscar contender. Since then, its creator has become mired in controversy but his film still deserves to be seen. Parker and cinematographer Elliot Davis (Twilight, The Iron Lady) deliver an appropriately angry film with a strong spiritual dimension and bags of visual drama while, at the centre, Parker the actor provides a sensitive, often understated contrast. Unfortunately the bold approach results in the occasional misstep – sometimes compositions seem stagey, or distract from the subject's bald power – and, in places, the narrative feels rushed.

Comparisons with 12 Years a Slave are both inevitable and justified. If it has its share of gut-punch moments too, The Birth of a Nation lacks that film's finesse and its universally powerful performances. Yet this is dynamic filmmaking whose story finds modern resonance in the Black Lives Matter movement, showing how important it is that tales like this continue to be told. As Nat and his followers wage a small war that we know to be unwinnable, the film celebrates their actions, actions which sadly result in only the briefest taste of freedom.

Screening on Tue 11, Wed 12 and Thu 13 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2016. General release from Fri 20 Jan.

The Birth of a Nation

  • 4 stars
  • 2016
  • US
  • 2h
  • 15
  • Directed by: Nate Parker
  • Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union
  • UK release: 20 January 2017

Nat Turner (Parker) is a slave in early 19th century Virginia, used by his owners to encourage other slaves to submit, but who is plotting an uprising of his own. Despite the controversy surrounding Parker, the film deserves to be seen: angry, dramatic and bittersweet, it's a story that needs telling.