'The Birth of a Nation'
Here’s a tricky one. When ‘The Birth of a Nation’ premiered at Sundance this spring it was instantly hailed as an early Oscar favorite and sold for $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight. Then some deeply troubling news slipped out about a rape in writer/director/star Nate Parker’s past. Though Parker was acquitted for the crime long ago, that history brings a controversy that may make viewing the movie uncomfortable.
With that acknowledged, now the focus will be the film itself, which is certainly rather good even if the advanced praise was a bit overstated.
Parker stars as Nat Turner, an important if fairly underexplored figure in American history. He grew up on a plantation as a slave, but befriended the young boy in the owning family and grew passionate about the Bible. As an adult, Parker became a preacher that his childhood friend/master (Armie Hammer) took around to various neighboring plantations to preach for cash. Over these journeys, Parker learned of the even greater evils of the slave trade than those that occurred in his already troubled home. His master also became increasingly cruel as he hit the bottle and desperately attempted to revive his family’s legacy. Eventually, pushed to his limit and fueled by a religious fever, Turner led a revolt that inspired his people and claimed many lives.
It’s a powerful tale, one of the few of the era that actually empowers the slave class in any manner. However, the movie doesn’t merely treat Turner’s revolt as righteously justified. The violence is brutal and the morality murky. As director, Parker shields viewers from none of horrors of slavery, yet keeps the harshest imagery just off-screen. It’s still a deeply disturbing and graphic movie, but it rarely dwells unnecessarily on the nastiest elements for discomforting titillation or exploitation.
The way the filmmaker teases out the relationship between Turner and his friend/master is fascinating. It makes clear that the complicity in slavery yielded no excusable kind white folks trying their best. The power dynamics are always clearly problematic even at their most gentle, and the ways in which the relationship disintegrates are alternately heartbreaking and horrifying. When Turner finally takes action, the results are equally enthralling, empowering and disturbingly graphic. Parker finds an intriguing balance that raises questions while still providing the grand catharsis of similar films, such as ‘Braveheart’.
With that said, as much as Parker gets right, the failings of the film all rest on his shoulders. As an actor, Parker remains a strong presence throughout, but as writer and director he falls into many self-important traps and rookie mistakes. Symbolism is often heavy-handed to the point of exhaustion (especially whenever angels appear). The visual style of the movie seems to swing freely from stoic reality to lurid genre thrills in clumsy ways. And Parker shoots himself as an actor from so many distractingly grandiose angles to emphasize the character’s heroism that the movie can feel a little narcissistically aggrandizing.
Then, of course, there’s the unfortunate fact that the filmmaker included not one, but two rape sequences that can’t help but feel inappropriate given the nagging controversy hanging over the movie (even if they are undeniably powerful works of drama). Those who go into ‘The Birth of a Nation’ demanding perfection or unable to distance the art from its creator will undoubtedly find plenty of problems to pull them out of the movie.
While ‘The Birth of a Nation’ might be a flawed and troubled film, there’s still no denying the immense effect it can have on audiences. You can’t call this sort of thing a crowd-pleaser given the true life horrors depicted and uncomfortable emotions raised. However, it’s also calculated for maximum emotional impact. Parker’s film packs a punch that will leave viewers shaken and often even cheering at the on-screen retribution. It works and very much feels like a strong and stirring film to play alongside the rising Black Lives Matter movement. The flaws are easy to ignore in light of the movie’s significant strengths. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ won’t instantly break out as the movie of the year as many predicted months ago, but it’s good enough to overcome the negative attention its creator has received and won’t be easily forgotten.