The rise and fall of a hero
Grappling with the troubled history of “The Birth of a Nation”
Recent discourse about “The Birth of a Nation,” one of the most acclaimed film during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, has steered away from the story of Nat Turner, the film’s protagonist, and towards the story of Nate Parker, the film’s director. The celebration of a film about the slave rebellion has been shadowed by the director’s troubled past after rape allegations resurfaced in light of his new fame.
The epic drama tells the real-life story of Virginia slave Nat Turner who, in 1831, led the bloodiest slave uprising in the history of the South. Although this premise has the potential of taking the “Django Unchained” route of sensationalist violence, the film opts for a calmer, more organic tone. In one of the most memorable images of the film, young Nat picks cotton for the first time in a shot that seamlessly transitions into his now adult-self collecting the white material with ease. The camera then pans up and zooms out to reveal disturbingly beautiful and peaceful miles of cotton fields under the calid afternoon sun.
The film is not so much concerned about the slave rebellion itself but rather, about the story of the man behind it, Nat Turner. Since birth, Nat was raised as a prodigy child destined for greatness. The opening scene sends us to a ritual in the middle of the woods in which it is revealed that Nat’s chest birthmark was indicative of this greatness that was bound to come. Sure enough, unlike any other slave, Nat learned how to read and preach. He became his master’s right hand who, as a result of Nat’s singularity, took advantage of his preaching skills and sold his services to other plantation slaveholders. Nat embarked on a tour to other plantation farms to preach to other slaves as a way for masters to appease them.
“Birth” is a magnificent, yet flawed, film. Its editing relies on old, heavy-handed tactics to create meaning out of scenes well after the audience has already figured it out. After the death of his grandmother, Nat sits alone in front of her corpse, already wrapped in white sheets, and reads the bible. At this point, Nat (and the audience) has witnessed the day-to-day atrocities that slaves experience in other plantations. Minutes before this scene, Nat nears his death after a ruthless whipping ordered by his master, Samuel (Armie Hammer). The film also suffers from a narrative that is too straightforward and does not attempt to problematize the conflicts within and among its characters. The dramatization of Nat’s heroic tale is ultimately too Hollywood for its own good.
Nonetheless, the film still wishes to remind us of these unforgettable horrors by rapidly juxtaposing shots of Nat reading the Bible with images of slaves whom Nat visited during his preaching tour. Images of Nat’s abstract visions throughout the film also feel too contrived and unnecessary to elevate its meaning beyond setting up a cause behind the rebellion.
Yet, at a period of civil unrest from constant police brutality events, “The Birth of a Nation” feels exceptionally timely. In many ways, the film functions as a direct response to the nation’s historically anti-black sentiment. For one, the narrative works as a courageous tale of revenge towards the evil, oppressing powers that stole the freedom from this group of people. Externally, the film addresses racist rhetoric right with the name of the production which attempts to reclaim its title from one of the most celebrated films in history, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” The 1915 film is known for being white supremacy-friendly although it is still examined in film studies. Then, in a broader, more contemporary context, the film facilitates discussions about race to illuminate striking parallels between the Antebellum period and today’s.
I watched “The Birth of a Nation” in the company of a predominantly black audience who vocally celebrated every moment of vindication or wisdom by the characters in the film. They gasped at the unflinching images of a slave being force-fed, a black child with a rope around her neck being paraded around like a dog and a group of slaves hanging from a bleak willow tree. These are horrific but important and resonant images to describe the black experience in today’s America. In recent years, black mainstream art has become defiantly more political during the most demanding time. This year alone, Beyonce released “Lemonade,” a visual album about black womanhood; indie artist Blood Orange dropped “Freetown Sound,” a commentary on how it feels to be black in America; director Barry Jenkins premiered “Moonlight,” a film that intersects black masculinity and sexuality in a modern setting; Networks like Netflix, ABC, the History Channel and OWN are producing black-centric shows such as “Luke Cage,” “Black-ish,” “Roots” and “Queen Sugar.” These are all-important narratives that have been neglected for years but are surfacing in light of conversations about diversity and inclusion, as in the case of #OscarsSoWhite.
Soon after the premiere of “The Birth of a Nation,” the film was poised to stand tall among these other artistic creations. Critics raved about the importance of the almost forgotten story of Nat Turner’s rebellion and even predicted, 12 months in advance, that this was to be an Oscars contender. Part of the appeal and significance of this production comes from the fact that Nate Parker wrote, produced, directed and starred in his film that he spent years trying to make. Parker, whose previous credits were all supporting roles, turned into an auteur by his own merits. Today, the enthusiasm that critics and scholars used to talk about the movie has faded away due to Nate Parker’s rape accusation during his time at Pennsylvania State University. Parker was accused of raping a female student along with his friend Jean McGianni Celestin, who co-wrote “Birth” with Parker. Although the director was acquitted from the case, many have revisited the case and investigated why the victim killed herself four years ago.
Can you separate the artist from the art? This is a question that culture scholars and the internet at large have extensively dabbled with no clear consensus. In Parker’s case, it becomes more intricate given that his very own film includes implicit events of rape and violence towards women. Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is gang raped and brutally attacked by a group of white men. Another female slave (Gabrielle Union) is forced to have sex with a master’s guest. The film chooses not to visually depict these events, while focusing instead in the physical denigration of black male bodies. To many, it feels very cynical of Parker to write weak female characters in order to depict the very same act he is accused of in a more gruesome narrative.
Nate Parker has addressed multiple media outlets about the rape accusations against him. “You know, I was falsely accused. You know, I went to court. And I sat in trial. You know, I was vindicated. I was proven innocent,” Parker recently said in a “60 Minutes” interview. “I don’t feel guilty.”
Reviews of the film, which comes out Friday, have chosen to not discuss the case and to instead focus on the visuals. Yet, to do so would be to ignore the influence of an auteur like Parker himself in the film. After all, he oversaw every salient aspect of the film, from production all the way to distribution, when he gave the rights of the film to Fox Searchlight Pictures. It is not so much about deciding to believe that Parker is innocent or not but more about the importance of having this conversation. The brutality and intensity of sexual violence against women has not subdued since the events depicted in the film. Parker himself chose to portray this violence on his own film and therefore must embrace the reactions from it. This is an issue that must still be discussed in relationship to the film in the same way that race is.
Walking the line between artist and art is difficult especially when the art is as significant—yet, not exceptional—as “Birth.” Though Nate Parker continues to defend his innocence without acknowledging the repercussions of his act, “The Birth of a Nation” should still be considered an important film on its own. But, the story behind it should never be dismissed.