BY BILLY SUTER
AFTER the hubbub surrounding the lack of black nominees at last year’s film awards ceremonies, it seemed inevitable that the eagerly awaited Birth of a Nation, a drama centred on slavery, would be a shoo-in for this year’s Golden Globe Awards, presented in Los Angeles this week
However that was not to be. The film – directed, written and produced by Nate Parker, and also starring him – was left empty-handed.
Scheduled to open in South Africa on January 13, Birth of a Nation won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize award for dramatic feature at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where it earned a standing ovation, but it has failed to excite Golden Globe voters.
Another controversy surrounding Birth of a Nation is that Parker had to face having an old court case dredged up in the light of his success with the film.
He had been accused of rape in 1999, when he was a student at Penn State University. The accuser claimed he harassed, intimidated and stalked her after she pressed charges, it has been reported.
Parker, according to online reports, was acquitted, and it partly had to do with him previously having had consensual oral sex with the accuser, according to Variety.
All that aside, Birth of a Nation points to being a memorable and powerful film, even if there may be no Golden Globes glory.
Set in the American South and based on a true story, it follows Nat Turner (Parker), a literate slave and preacher whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves.
As he witnesses countless atrocities – against himself, his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and fellow slaves – Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hope of leading his people to freedom.
The film also features Mark Boone jnr, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union with Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley.
Production notes for the film state that the Turner slave rebellion stands as one of the most influential acts of resistance against slavery in all American history, yet remarkably, the story has never before been recounted in a contemporary screen drama.
Contentious to some and inspirational to many, until now, the life and impact of Nat Turner has largely been confined to folktales, novels, documentaries and a few paragraphs here and there in history books.
The Birth of a Nation promises a fiery and focused new lens on Turner’s story – taking on the incendiary notions of retaliation and how the institution of slavery continues to afflict and inform present times, according to production notes.
The film is said to offer a fresh perspective on what led to Turner’s insurrection against slave owners in 1831, and sets out to offer a comprehensive and human portrait of the man behind the rebellion – a man driven by faith and a confidence that God is on the side of the oppressed.
“Nate Parker takes on a distinctly vast ambition for a first-time filmmaker, presenting a more take-charge slave narrative than we are used to seeing,” says a film spokesman for the movie.
“Amidst sweeping action and romance he presents a man driven equally by love, spirituality, fury and hope to free his people from the legacy of bondage in America. In the process, he restores a figure long relegated as a historical footnote… and shows him as the heroic trailblazer he was.”