Amazing how this film has dropped out of all awards mentions – ten months ago when it premiered at Sundance it was snapped up for millions and positioned as the Oscar front runner.
All that’s happened since is a rather nasty business with the film maker and star Nate Parker, whose historical involvement in a campus rape as a student has tarnished his reputation and made the film persona non grata amid the polite round tables of the awards season.
The rights and wrongs of this are debatable. Is the film any worse for knowing what Parker once did? I’m hardly one to talk – I can’t watch, won’t watch a Mel Gibson film, so you won’t be getting a Hacksaw Ridge review from me.
But The Birth of A Nation, I liked. It’s the story of a real-life slave rebellion in Virginia, but mostly it follows the life of slave Nate Turner, who has the gift reading and becomes a prized slave on his plantation.
His intelligence sets him apart initially, before his skin colour casts him out again and it becomes the emotional journey of a man growing the understand the horrors around him.
Dare I say it, but while using visual tropes now familiar from Twelve Years a Slave or even Django, Parker’s film ups the ante and is even more powerful. For me, you can’t see enough of this sort of stuff on screen – such scenes and images should be burned into our conscious. Ok, so he uses Strange Fruit to illustrate lynched black corpses swaying in the breeze – I’ve never actually seen that before, and it seemed both apt and heart-breaking.
I liked the film’s anger and passion and I liked how this director approached it. He may have acted like a moron once upon a time, and his film has certainly depicted horrid sexual degradation of women characters, scenes which viewed with hindsight probably are harder to accept.
It’s still a film of considerable craft and power, a slave story told by a black man, with many unforgettable images, whatever the murky politics of them.