Analysis

The flaws and fury of The Birth of a Nation

This deeply flawed but frequently rewarding film is a remarkable piece of work

Back in January, writer-director-producer-actor Nate Parker enjoyed one of the most triumphant moments in the history of the Sundance Film Festival, when his Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation debuted to standing ovations both before and after its first screening.

The distribution rights quickly sold to Fox Searchlight for a Sundance record $17.5 million, and subsequent shows were madhouses, with critics and regular attendees waiting for hours to get in, desperate to see what had suddenly become the festival's defining film. The Birth of a Nation — a passion-project Parker had been working on since 2009 — won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, and at a time when the entertainment media was filled with angst over the Academy Awards being #OscarsSoWhite, buzz started building in Park City that Parker had a surefire Oscar winner on his hands.

Then in August, Parker started talking about a rape charge that he was acquitted of back when he was a Penn State student-athlete.

To many, Parker has been insufficiently contrite about his participation in an incident that ultimately led to a young woman committing suicide. During this past Sunday's 60 Minutes, Parker admitted that he regretted the sexual encounter as a Christian, but that the courts determined he didn't do anything unlawful.

It's possible that diving straight into the controversy before re-launching the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September may have gotten some of the backlash out of the way early. But the hubbub over Parker's past has also liberated some critics to admit that they were never that impressed with his movie in the first place.

Leaving aside Parker's off-screen issues, the debate over The Birth of a Nation is complicated by what the film actually wants to be. This is a movie that functions as an American slave narrative, as a scrappy action picture, as a bold piece of historical revisionism, and as a personal testimony to the power of the Christian religion.

It does not excel at everything it tries.

The Birth of a Nation is fairly weak as an exposé of the horrors of plantation life. Or at least it pales in comparison to the likes of the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, ot the TV miniseries Roots (the '70s original and the recent remake), or even WGN's fervid series Underground, which debuted just two months after Sundance. Parker made his movie on a tight budget, and the limited locations, sparse sets, and smallish cast are noticeable throughout the first hour, which is mostly about how Nat Turner endured the indignities of being someone else's property. The set-up is suitably harsh, with lots of unflinching detail about the cruelty of slaveholders. But it's also played stiffly, resembling a historical reenactment more than a vivid, nuanced piece of storytelling.

In the film's back half, when Turner leads his fellow slaves in a violent revolt against their masters, The Birth of a Nation comes to life, both as cinema and as provocation. The film becomes a stirring revenge thriller, with echoes of everything from Django Unchained to Braveheart. Parker doesn't spare the gore, or the sensationalism. As Turner and his fellow rebels take up arms, the movie stacks up one scene after another of oppressors getting beaten, shot, and ax-murdered — maximizing both the horrific bloodletting and the sense of a long-delayed justice raining down with righteous fury. Here, the skimpy budget works in Parker's favor, making the film feel leaner and fleeter, and less stridently "important."

But this movie is important, inasmuch as it works to reclaim Nat Turner as a classic American hero, fighting against rank villainy. Parker very purposefully took the name of his film from D.W. Griffith's infamous 1915 epic, which was a tale of the Civil War and the Reconstruction that painted the Ku Klux Klan as a force for good and ex-slaves as a persistent danger to democracy. The new film intends to bury its predecessor, seizing its title as a way of reframing the story of the 19th century South as one with black Americans at the center. The tawdrier this Birth of a Nation feels, the more it has in common with every other Hollywood and off-Hollywood movie that's turned world history into fist-pumping entertainment. It normalizes Turner as another William Wallace or Spartacus.

Whether Parker intended this connection or not, the more conventionally entertaining aspects of The Birth of a Nation tie to his larger theme of slaves using their owners' religion as a weapon against them. Throughout this film, anything that has to do with Turner as a Christian evangelist are the most consistently thoughtful and well-developed elements. This has always been an important part of the Turner narrative: that he learned to read the Bible at an early age, and was asked to lead services for his fellow slaves. Parker continually underlines the ironies of that situation. He shows whites responding to Turner's obvious gifts with condescension, insisting that there had to be a natural ceiling to his intelligence, given his race. He has others reacting with disgust, certain Turner's eloquence was a sign of disrespect to his "betters." In each case, the people looking down on Turner consider themselves spiritually righteous. They urge him to focus on Biblical passages like "slaves, submit to your masters," and to remind them that God doesn't intend them to be rewarded on Earth, but rather to expect their treasure in Heaven.

For Parker — a deeply religious person himself — the Christian underpinnings of The Birth of a Nation are unusually complex. On the one hand, this is a movie about how an entire culture leaned on the Bible to justify the unjustifiable. But it's also about how the gift of the Gospel — intended to help calm "the stock" — allowed Turner and his brothers and sisters to start seeing themselves as children of God, born to be free. During the insurrection, there's a poignant moment when one slave considers the time of day and notes, "By now I'd be two rows down." He's savoring the excitement of following his own path, away from the threat of the whip. It's a feeling he learned about from the stories that were intended to keep him passively in chains. Parker strongly suggests that the lessons of liberation were always there, no matter which words the powerful preferred to emphasize.

In his own life, Parker now finds himself at the mercy of how others choose to interpret his story. Seventeen years ago, was he the beneficiary of privilege, as a male athlete? Or is he being railroaded now, by people who are uncomfortable with his film or inclined to believe the worst about a black man? Expect both sides of that argument to get a full airing in the months ahead. Expect also that by the end of the year, Parker and Fox Searchlight will have made a fair amount of money off of a controversial crowd-pleaser, but with little to show for it in terms of awards from an industry that'll probably decide the potential furor isn't worth the trouble.

But the court of public opinion offers only a rough justice, if any at all, so the best we can do is reckon with The Birth of a Nation itself, not its maker. What we have here is a deeply flawed but frequently rewarding picture, with a lot to say about how stories can both guide and misguide us. In nearly every way — as a piece of American history, as an expression of faith, and as a Sundance film that many were eager to hail sight unseen — this is a remarkable piece of work, which is sure to be interpreted and reinterpreted for years to come.

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