Nate Parker’s controversial The Birth of a Nation is almost impossible to talk about; a mess borne from a toxic mixture personal passion, misguided filmmaking, historical resonance, single-minded self-importance, modern cultural relevancy, and the uneasy correlation between an artist’s personal life and their art. And yet, there’s too much going on here to not talk about it, some of it positive, but most of it overwhelmingly negative. It’s just a shame that as a film taken on its own merits, The Birth of a Nation isn’t a great film. It’s not a film about how historical figure Nat Turner’s bloody rebellion in 1831 impacted the fight for equality in pre-Civil War America; it’s about how Nate Parker identifies himself as a pariah. Considering that this was a film that was produced prior to the current firestorm of controversy surrounding Parker’s off screen life, that only makes the final product harder to excuse.
In order to talk about Parker’s work with any degree of critical accuracy, we have to go back to the beginning of the project. Nate Parker has been working as an actor and filmmaker for almost a decade now. The Birth of a Nation, which cheekily reclaims the title of D.W. Griffith’s blatantly racist, pro-KKK 1915 blockbuster of the same name, was a major passion project for Parker, something he spent years trying to acquire the capital to make. He was able to cobble together a modest ten million dollar budget for the independently produced film from a variety of sources and investors. When the film debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival – merely a week after no prominent people of colour were nominated in any major categories at the Academy Awards – Parker’s work was heralded by critics (who at Sundance are notoriously charitable and easily able to buy into hype) as a breath of fresh air. A major bidding war for distribution rights erupted, with Fox Seachlight coming out the victor by paying $17.5 million and promising The Birth of a Nation a wide theatrical release just in time for awards season. Following a year that saw black filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler’s films relatively snubbed during a contentious Oscar season but embraced warmly by critics and commercial audiences, Parker’s film seemed poised to become a major contender and conversation starter.
In early August that wave of goodwill changed when an incident from 1999 involving Parker and his friend, former Penn State classmate, and Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean McGanni Celestin came back to cast a pall over the production (or at least more of a pall than previously contemptible homophobic comments from Parker might have caused). In 1999, Parker and Celestin were charged with the rape of a female student at Penn State. Despite a fair amount of circumstantial evidence, a previous consensual encounter between Parker and the victim and a handful of mitigating factors were enough to get the charges against the former collegiate wrestling star dismissed. In 2001, Celestin was convicted of rape, with a sentence that was delayed until 2004 so the accused could graduate. Celestin’s conviction was overturned, however, in 2005 when a court deemed that he didn’t have competent legal counsel. Prosecutors didn’t bother trying the case again, and things seemed to end there. The woman who accused Parker and Celestin of rape lived a troubled life following the alleged incident, eventually committing suicide in a rehab facility in 2012. There’s a lot more to this situation, but that’s the short version. One can find a comprehensive, well researched timeline of events over at Vulture.
“It’s not a film about how historical figure Nat Turner’s bloody rebellion in 1831 impacted the fight for equality in pre-Civil War America; it’s about how Nate Parker identifies himself as a pariah.”
These charges against Parker and Celestin (who retains a story credit on the film) were brought up again in early August in Variety, shortly before The Birth of a Nation was to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and a screening at the AFI. TIFF chose to screen the film amid all the controversy, while the AFI cancelled the film and a post-screening Q&A with Parker. Since early August, Parker has been doing his best to keep a brave face in the press – most recently going on Good Morning America and stating emphatically that he has no intention of apologizing for a crime he wasn’t convicted of committing – and tensions surrounding The Birth of a Nation’s commercial, artistic, and cultural merits have been set at a rolling boil ever since.
I know what some of you are thinking right now: if I wanted to strictly talk about the merits of the film as a singular work and separate the art from the artist, why would I bring up any of this? The answer is simple. The Birth of a Nation purports to be a film that aligns itself firmly and unequivocally with the victims of one of the greatest human rights abuses in world history. In execution, however, The Birth of a Nation exactly replicates the personality of the person who made the film. It’s a work of overwhelming piety and ego that’s impossible to overlook even if Parker hadn’t been accused of a major crime in his youth. It’s brickbat posturing lacking in subtlety that mistakes Old Testament righteousness and eye-for-an-eye politicking as profundity. It doesn’t want to say anything about racism or anything about the victims. It only wants to speak of its own self-importance, with racism and violence serving as a cartoonish backdrop for it all.
With regard to Parker’s real life legal troubles, the actor-writer-director makes it all about himself and not the woman who sadly isn’t with us anymore. He always says about how it was a trying time for him on a personal level and how he has changed over the years by becoming a family man, all without placing himself in the shoes of the victim for a single second. The Birth of a Nation is nothing more than a high-minded superhero origin story told from a singular, historically dicey perspective packed with dramatic moments that never really happened and through a character that Parker himself identifies with on a personal level. It’s more thematically virtuous than the film it seeks to righteously reclaim its title from, but it’s no less uneasy to watch. The Birth of a Nation pays the same amount of respect to slaves that Charles Bronson would to a rape victim in a Death Wish film, which is to say very little outside of it warranting a bloody, violent climax. The slave owners are all cartoonish, over-the-top caricatures (especially Jackie Earle Haley, who plays his slave hunter as if he just got fired from Django Unchained), and the slaves are all faceless victims for slaughters both pointless and righteous. For some, especially those who had their knives out and justly pointed at the establishment following this year’s Oscar debacle that could be cathartic in the moment. In the memory, this sort of execution is a lot more artistically dubious and much more short-term in lasting impact.
“The Birth of a Nation purports to be a film that aligns itself firmly and unequivocally with the victims of one of the greatest human rights abuses in world history. In execution, however, The Birth of a Nation exactly replicates the personality of the person who made the film.”
Parker stars as Turner, a literate slave owned by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), a Virginian plantation owner who has fallen on hard times financially. When word begins to spread that Nat has the ability to administer the word of the Lord, it’s suggested that Samuel bring his “property” along to other plantations for a fee in hopes of preaching the virtues of obedience to fellow slaves with often loathsome owners. The experience of travelling and seeing the relative amount of piteous privilege he’s been afforded changes Nat on a profound level, leading to a point where he can no longer tolerate the injustices he witnesses and an uprising forms in the streets and woods surrounding Southampton County.
It opens with an uneasily prophetic quote from Thomas Jefferson about how “justice cannot sleep forever.” From there, Parker frames Turner whose heroic blessing and curse is the gift of knowledge, a dangerous thing to have in such pious and bigoted times. This framing of Turner as both a learned man and a devout believer in the word of the Lord causes a great deal of confusion in the viewer. It’s never clear if Turner wants to use the word of God in a bid to subvert those who seek to enslave him or if Turner is some sort of divine prophet. The early years of Turner’s life and depicted by Parker akin to Jesus being raised in a manger with similar visual imagery. From there, the adult Turner’s life seems directly framed as if it were a story from the Holy Bible. Parker has taken a story of a revolutionary, and in a move that’s somewhat artistically admirable and original, made it into a story of the Christ. It’s very easy to see why early plans for the publicity of the film included having Parker travel around to churches to give talks about the film’s subject matter. It’s a devoutly religious film, which for some will make it both easier and harder to take. It’s Nate Parker’s version of The Gospels.
Like many projects that blend ego with religion, The Birth of a Nation starts taking on the affectation of a sermon being delivered by a televangelist. It’s not that certain aspects of slave life aren’t as horrific, gruesome, and soul crushing as Parker makes them out to be here. It’s just that for every shot of someone taking a beating, being force fed, or yes, even being raped and beaten (as happens to Turner’s wife in the film, something that patently never happened in any historical account of the narrative, and much like Parker’s own culpability can’t be proven or disproven), Parker as a filmmaker always cuts immediately back to his own pained face in the lead role after dwelling on the inherent misery of the situation. This isn’t a film that says “look at what we went through,” but “look at how I react to my own interpretation of this text.” It’s as if Parker fears that his project will lose all sense of purpose if it stays away from his own face for too long.
Granted, that’s an easy criticism to make in a film that’s literally about how witnessing history’s atrocities can change a person, but Parker always looks so composed and strong-jawed that there’s no sense of vulnerability to Turner as a human being. Despite attempts by Parker to make the viewer think otherwise by underlining the grotesquerie of slavery on a visual level, this is a film about how Parker envies Turner. It’s almost a bizarre form of fan service towards a historical figure. We never learn much about Turner except that he’s alternately saddened and angered by the life he has been forced to lead. He’s not a deep man or a fleshed out character. He’s a series of character traits lumped together so Parker can act out a moment in history that he probably would have partaken in had he been alive in the 1800s. There’s nothing wrong with that on a historical or righteous level, but that serves Parker much more than it serves an audience or the memories of those still living with the scars of slavery throughout recorded history.
“The Birth of a Nation only has the desire to shock audiences into stunned silence via the story of one man’s struggle.”
The closest thing I can tonally compare The Birth of a Nation to would be Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It’s a story where the artist and the art become eventually inseparable when the filmmaker in question deals so closely with a historical figure they admire so deeply that they can’t realize they’ve actually produced a vanity project created more by the id and ego than from the heart. When Parker’s incarnation of Turner is being whipped, a smile comes across the actor’s face, and in my mind I immediately flashed back to a shot in The Passion of the Christ where Gibson’s hand is the one driving a spike through the hand of Jesus Christ. In that one moment, The Birth of a Nation stops being a serious, well intentioned screed and devolves into a work of pure unchecked ego and excess playing into the piety of the filmmaker and star, but not the subject at the heart of the film.
There are some things worthy of praise here, and since any film is the sum of many parts and not just the auteur who makes it, I do feel compelled to mention them. As much as his images are in service of dubious aims, Parker is a deft visualist, and cinematographer Elliot Davis matches Parker’s artistic sensibilities wonderfully. Armie Hammer is quite good as Nat’s drunken, patently useless owner, ditto Penelope Ann Miller as Samuel’s sullen mother. In terms of construction and pacing, it’s competently produced and mounted, which as a backhanded compliment is designed to say that I’m sure The Birth of a Nation turned out exactly how Parker always intended it to look in his head.
The Birth of a Nation only has the desire to shock audiences into stunned silence via the story of one man’s struggle. This isn’t about how Nat Turner helped in the fight to end slavery by a bold and murderous decision. This is about how Nate Parker literally thinks of himself as Nat Turner reborn, and given his recent exploits outside the film and the way he has carried himself through his current media conundrum, this reading of his work checks out perfectly. Even if the stories of Parker’s past hadn’t resurfaced, The Birth of a Nation would still be an egocentric work with an iciness that can’t be shaken.
If this were a standard review for TFS, this would be the part where I would have to answer if the film in question – which opens at Cineplex locations across Canada on October 7, 2016 – is essential viewing or not. The short answer combined with the long explanation above is a firm “no.” Even on its own merits as a film, no. It could have been an important and topical film, but is instead a work of well-intentioned egotism that does far too little with such a loaded subject. A necessary conversation about race in North America could have been had from such material, but Parker’s approach to the material combined with his own obliviousness to how The Birth of a Nation parallels his own current situation amounts to a tone deaf final product.