Nate Parker may not be an immediately recognisable name, but the actor (who has appeared in films such as Non-Stop and Beyond the Lights) may very well have put himself in awards contention with this, his feature directorial debut, based on real-life events.
He also stars as Nat Turner, a slave living in Virginia, who is toured around plantations by his cash-strapped owner (Armie Hammer) preaching a carefully edited gospel to fellow slaves. The atrocities he sees prompts him to lead one of the most notorious rebellions in American history, which would spread mass panic among white slave owners, leading to bloody retribution.
There’s no avoiding the fact that this period in history makes for particularly harrowing viewing, and Parker certainly doesn’t shy away from those darker moments. From Turner’s perspective, we see unimaginably cruel scenes of torture and humiliation.
Aided by an excellent lead performance, much of the first hour establishes life on the plantation, laying the foundations for a second half dedicated to Turner’s uprising. Faith is also a major theme in the film, used by slave owners to control, but used by the rebels to inspire.
This film will inevitably be compared to Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, but it bears more similarities to Braveheart – the journey of a charismatic, intelligent leader of a band of rebels against an oppressive force.
That said, there are bumps in the road. There’s very little subtlety as the viewer is bombarded with upsetting moments and big, grandstanding speeches. A scene where an abused slave asks our hero “Where’s God now?” is an example of the blunt emotion used to get a point across.
There is no room for complexity, either. Turner is a contentious figure in history, with many branding his actions as simple vengeance. That argument doesn’t exist here, and while the case for his heroism is no less valid, shades of grey would have created a more rounded sense of the man.
For the most part, however, those flaws are overwhelmed by the high quality of Parker’s execution. The film is superbly directed, with dim lighting and dark tones illustrating the drudgery of the characters’ everyday lives.
While the script doesn’t mince its words, there are certain moments that are stunning in their simplicity, like a sequence using the Nina Simone song Strange Fruit that is utterly haunting. Aside from the straightforward morality, Parker’s performance is also captivating. This was a passion project for the writer, director and star, and it’s clear to see that on the screen.
The film is also filled with strong performances from the supporting cast. Most interesting is Hammer, playing Turner’s owner, a man not seemingly cruel by nature (and indeed a childhood friend of Turner’s) but entrenched in the fundamentally racist attitudes of the time. There is a sense of conflict in him, but ultimately he is the instigator of a bloody conclusion to the story.
There is a moving turn from Gabrielle Union, too, and the frankly terrifying presence of Jackie Earle Haley as the sadistic Raymond Cobb, a villain who stands out even in a society based on cruelty.
Highlighting both an exciting new film-making talent and a suppressed moment in history, Nate Parker has created something that rises above its flaws. Off-screen controversy may make the film a difficult prospect for many, but on its own merits The Birth of a Nation is a powerful, unrelenting drama.
The Birth of a Nation is in cinemas from Friday 9 December