LIFF30 - The Birth Of A Nation - Cinema Review

'Parker wisely shows not tells the story of Turner's transformation, never rushing his message and allowing the often uncomfortable images he puts on screen to speak for themselves'.

Since the initial positive reaction to The Birth Of A Nation following its premiere at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, the resurfacing of controversial issues from writer, director and star Nate Parker's past have increasingly overshadowed the film. Whether you can separate the the artist from their art is a personal choice, one which many have been forced to make one way or another regarding the output of the likes of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski in the past.

Whilst Parker is the driving force behind The Birth Of A Nation, the film should not become a referendum on public opinion of the filmmaker, especially when it tackles such a significant period in America's past with boldly appropriate levels of brutality. The director is unafraid to put the reality of just how repulsive the slave trade was during the 19th Century on screen in a manner which justifiably shocks but never feels exploitative.

Parker's portrayal of Nat Turner and his journey from slave to preacher to the leader of a rebellion against the established order of the time is also excellent. His performance is regularly reminiscent of Denzel Washington's early work, believably bringing Turner to life on screen during every stage of his life. Parker wisely shows not tells the story of Turner's transformation, never rushing his message and allowing the often uncomfortable images he puts on screen to speak for themselves.

Of the two key relationships in Turner's life that Parker chooses to focus upon, it is that with his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) which emerges by far the stronger. After his breakout performance in 2010's The Social Network, Hammer has waited for a role to truly showcase his acting abilities once again; he finds it in Samuel, deftly balancing the conflict between his benevolence towards his slaves and his desperation to make the family plantation prosper following the death of his father. Parker and Hammer build a believable relationship between master and slave, their chemistry developing it into the most affecting of the film.

Less successful is the depiction of Turner's relationship with wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), which regularly feels too romanticised, especially when placed alongside the stark manner in which Parker puts across the barbarism of slavery. Most of the scenes between King and Parker are simply too soft and sanitised to ring true, the strength of the dialogue elsewhere regularly traded in for toothless sentimentality.

The film is at its strongest during its final act focused upon the rebellion led by Turner in 1831. Parker unleashes the anger which has been brewing within Turner and his band of insurgents in unapologetic style, whilst at the same time ensuring the violence on display is never reduced to mindless vengeance. The disclaimer that The Birth Of A Nation is only "based on a true story" means that Parker's film should not be viewed as a historical document; but there's no denying the director's success in capturing the bleak inhumanity of this chapter in American history.

The Birth Of A Nation plays LIFF30 again on Wednesday 9th November at 15.30 at Vue in The Light. 

The 30th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 3rd-17th November 2016 at thirty venues across the city, including Hyde Park Picture House and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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