Hollywood, sometimes the truth is better than fiction | Catherine Shoard

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Why insist on reimagined propaganda when the real history behind The Birth of a Nation is as relevant?

When The Birth of a Nation premiered at the Sundance film festival in January, it was met with a warm reception. And when I say warm, I really mean it. The first standing ovation came before the opening credits.

Small wonder: rarely was such a movie so required. A few days before its premiere, the Oscars So White controversy again exploded, as no actors of colour were nominated for the second year running. Beyond that bubble, the Black Lives Matter movement gathered anger, anticipating a horrific year. Both inside and outside Hollywood, there was a keen appetite for films that gave big roles to non-white actors and told stories of emancipation previously suppressed ordirected by white people.

Nate Parkers biopic of Nat Turner deliberately takes the title of the notorious 1915 Ku Klux Klan propaganda film directed by DW Griffiths. [Spoiler alert] The new movie recounts the story of the leader of an 1831 slave revolt in Virginia which led to the deaths of 60 white people and then about 200 black people.

It is direct and frank and stirring in aim as well as its aesthetic. It simmers for 90 minutes, as its hero suffers and witnesses the suffering of others, beforeunleashing almighty revenge.

Hence the ecstatic ovation that also closed the Sundance premiere. And hence its speedy sale to Fox Searchlight for $17.5m (14m) a record-breaking sum. And an incredible bid of confidence, particularly given that the film it most obviously emulates, Steve McQueens best picture winner 12 Years a Slave, underperformed at the US box office, taking less than a third of its global total there.

In the lengthy, undisputed testimony read out at his trial, Turner explained that he was prompted by religious visions and messages. Photograph: Fox/Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

But perhaps The Birth of a Nation would be different. After all, it delivers where McQueens more composed work whose hero endures torture and servitude without bloody rebellion does not. Like Quentin Tarantinos Django Unchained (which took five times what 12 Years a Slave did in America), it offers catharsis, as Turner and compatriots pick up their axes acts which, the final shots suggest, helped secure an end to slavery.

So here is a movie absolutely of the moment, precisely right for our times. Except that it isnt. Or, at least, not really. Parker has co-opted Turners tale into something suited to the febrile atmosphere around race and violence. Yet Nat Turners true story is just as topical.

In the lengthy, undisputed testimony read out at his real-life trial, Turner explained that he was prompted by religious visions and messages. How signs from God made it plain to him that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand and that he was the one to execute Gods will. The contemporary relevance of a killer driven by fundamentalism, even jihad, hardly needs stating.

The Birth of a Nation: Official HD Trailer

Turners status as a slave of course informs his entire life. But while the film fully foregrounds this, his actual testimony didnt really mention it. The movie massages the facts beyond recognition. The man himself stated that his owner was a kind master, [who] placed the greatest confidence in me; in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me.

The film thinks otherwise, making one particular instance of cruelty the tipping point. It also adds a couple of white-on-black rapes, plus Turner being galvanised by the terrible conditions of other slaves, witnessed while touring local plantations as a preacher.

Much is made up, other moments Turner going back to kill a baby initiallyforgotten in the slaughter of a family, for instance omitted. The real circumstances of his capture are less flattering than the film suggests.

But most crucial is the altering of hismotivation. We see a cob of corn appear to fill with blood in Turners hands, which he takes as a sign to attack. But we dont see him then discovering on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters and numbers with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens. Might knowing this was his prompt muddy our admiration?

Parker is not the first person to have appropriated someones biography for their own propaganda no matter how justified the cause may be. Hes not even the first person to have done it with Nat Turner. TR Gray, a slave owner whointerviewed Turner in jail and who transcribed his statement, frames its written version within his own dubious declarations. In 1967, William Styron wrote a novel imagining Turners life story. It won the Pulitzer prize, but many objected to its portrayal of the slaves as dim, Turner as bumbling and prone to sexual violence and the slave owners as sweet if naive.

Fiction films are not documentaries, but playing fast and loose with key real figures, while claiming the authority that history gives, is irresponsible. It is also unnecessary. 12 Years a Slave was remarkably faithful to its source. Its one major change was to downplay the endless false hope towards the end of Solomon Northups incarceration.

That film succeeded not just because it told us that slavery was bad, as Parkers does; likewise, to take another example, Suffragette did more than inform us that women ought to have had the vote. Both showed us what it was really like for those who had to cope in suchappalling situations, what motivated them to keep living, as well as what drove those whose views we now think abhorrent. To lay it on thick isforgivable. Painting such a false portrait is not.

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