The Birth of a Nation: A qualified success from a problematic auteur

Artistically, Birth of a Nation is worth viewing. Morally, it's a lot more complicated.

click to enlarge Nate Parker as "Nat Turner" in THE BIRTH OF A NATION - Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Nate Parker as "Nat Turner" in THE BIRTH OF A NATION

The Birth of a Nation

3 out of 5 stars

Rated R. Directed by Nate Parker.

Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King.

Opens Oct. 7.

The Birth of a Nation has been one of the most buzzed-about films of 2016, for reasons both positive and negative. Written, produced and directed by star Nate Parker, a veteran actor known for roles in films like Arbitrage and Beyond the Lights, the film debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it earned standing ovations and the festival's grand jury prize. It left Utah having secured a record-setting $17.5 million distribution deal with Fox Searchlight pictures.

Alas, in more recent months, attention has shifted to Parker himself. As has been detailed extensively, in 1999, while a nationally ranked wrestler at Penn State University, Parker and teammate Jean Celestin were charged with raping a fellow Penn State student. Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was convicted, although the conviction was later overturned. That the accuser later committed suicide, and that Celestin shares a screenwriting credit on the Birth of a Nation script, have contributed to stirring up a thorny public dialogue around the film.

I won't deal here with the implications of choosing to patronize this production, except to say that your moral mileage may vary. Unfortunately, even judged on artistic merits alone, rendering a final verdict on Birth of a Nation is no less murky.

A native of Norfolk, Parker reportedly spent seven years trying to find a studio willing to let him bring to the screen this story of Nat Turner's 1831 slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. That he eventually received the greenlight no doubt has a great deal to do with the subsequent commercial and critical success of both 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained. And indeed, the finished product draws a bit from both of those predecessors, but ultimately is a far more conventional epic biopic than either — something more like an antebellum Braveheart. That Mel Gibson is thanked in the closing credits is no coincidence.  

Relatively little is known about the real Turner. He know that he could read and write, that he reported having religious visions, that he conducted Baptist sermons for his fellow slaves and that he even attracted some white followers. In August 1831, he led a group of roughly 70 slaves and freed black men in a revolt that killed somewhere between 55 and 65 white men, women and children. He ultimately was captured and, in November of that year, was hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered in Jerusalem, Virginia.

The film is most effective in demonstrating not only the brutality of slavery, but the ways the institution corrupts and degrades all who touch it. Turner's master Samuel (Armie Hammer) had been Nat's peer and playmate when both were children and he initially is depicted as more humane than other slaveholders. But as his plantation begins to fail and his family's status begins to sink, Samuel descends into cruelty and alcoholism. He is able to make ends meet only by renting out Nat's ministry services to fellow slaveholders, who believe the fear of God is what's needed to scare their human chattel into compliance.

Through these travels, Nat is exposed to just how deplorable human bondage can be, including a truly gruesome scene involving dental horror and forced feeding. Over time, the incalculable wounds add up, reflected both in Parker's expressive eyes and in how the tone of his sermons changes. "For every verse they use to support our bondage, there’s another one demanding our freedom," Nat observes. The breaking point comes when he displays the audacity to baptize a white man, provoking a horrific whipping from his master's foreman.

As a first-time filmmaker working on a limited budget, Parker no doubt faced challenges in staging the revolt that would inevitably have to serve as the film's centerpiece. Nonetheless, it's hard not to conclude the final product falls short — a climax that manages to feel both rushed and surprisingly flat. The Braveheart comparisons really come through in the denouement, which suggests Turner's failed revolt was redeemed by those slaves who earned their freedom by serving the Union Army. But the film never really draws those threads together effectively.  

That isn't the only place where Birth of a Nation misses the mark. Parker's Turner is presented as a messianic figure whose visions, though rooted in a Christian faith, hearken back to his ancestor's African religions. At times, these dream sequences are a bit too much, with melodrama that threatens to verge over into camp. Indeed, time and again, the film proceeds through scenes that mix the sublime with the ham-handed.

To demonstrate the unspeakable butchery that followed the revolt — in which Virginia's whites killed hundreds of blacks in the streets, free and slave alike — Parker composes a truly haunting tracking shot of one body after another (including Nat's mother and grandmother) hanging from willow tree branches. But the power of the scene is completely undercut by the decision to choice to use Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" as the source music, thus crossing way over the line into overkill (though arguably preferable to more of the frequently intrusive score from composer Henry Jackman).

And we must inevitably circle back to the elephant in the room, which is that Parker's personal history might be easier to look past were it not for the film's problematic treatment of women. With the possible exception of Penelope Ann Miller, who plays Samuel's mother Elizabeth, none of the film's female characters are made three-dimensional. Twice, the film depicts acts of sexual violence against slave women, and in both cases considers them largely in the context of the emasculation felt by the women's husbands. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the scene in which Nat persuades Samuel to buy an attractive teenaged slave (Aja Naomi King) who would later become his wife. The movie elides the depravity inherent in that act to posit that it was love at first sight.

Whatever else he may be, Nate Parker is a tremendous talent. Whether he will have the chance to realize that talent's full potential, and whether audiences should allow him to, are questions I can't answer. But I'll be watching and waiting, and suspect I won't be alone.  

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