2016 Certificate: 15

Synopsis

Literate slave Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is largely shielded from outright sadistic racism by a master roughly his own age, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who's trying to keep his father's plantation going through tough times. Turner buys the attractive teenage slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King) so Nat can marry her. However, as he begins to experience the brutal world outside, the atrocities lead him and his fellow slaves into open revolt. A century after director DW Griffiths created a cinematic landmark with his controversial take on the story, writer-director Parker offers a fairer reflection of history with this epic tale of oppression and rebellion.

Director

  • Nate Parker

Cast

  • Nate Parker

  • Armie Hammer

  • Penelope Ann Miller

  • Jackie Earle Haley

  • Mark Boone Junior

  • Colman Domingo

  • Aja Naomi King

Review

DW Griffith's three-hour 1915 silent epic drama The Birth of a Nation featured African-American men as sexually aggressive savages and somehow contrived to sympathetically portray the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force for the good.

More than 100 years later, writer, producer, director and actor Nate Parker reclaims the title but tells a different story with black slaves very much the noble avengers.

Parker plays the real-life Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher who fares better than his oppressed brethren thanks to a clearly delineated yet civil relationship with his master, cash-strapped Virginia plantation owner Samuel Turner (Hammer).

Faced with dire financial straits, Samuel hires out Nat to placate unruly slaves in neighbouring plantations with prayer...but this just serves to reveal the vile conditions in which they're living (in one almost unwatchable scene a hunger-striking slave has his teeth chiselled out for force-feeding).

However, the brutal catalyst for rebellion comes when Nate's teenage wife Cherry (King) is raped by leering slave-tracker Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) when she strays a few paces off the plantation to get water.

Parker relates the story of the 1831 Turner Slave Rebellion in a solidly conventional style (one of the few mis-steps is a dodgy scene with an angel) with some horrific violence (the weapons-of-choice for the slave revolt were machetes and hammers) while giving an admirable performance as the cultured and considerate Nat.

However, it lacks the powerful subtlety and complexity of Steve McQueen's ​12 Years A Slave and its moral authority has been rather undermined by the emergence of decades-old allegations of rape against Parker himself, charges which he vehemently denies.

Still, it's a workmanlike account...but a story that deserves better.

Tim Evans