In the interest of staying true to my general philosophy of separating the art from the artist, this review of The Birth of a Nation will relegate mentions of the controversy surrounding writer/producer/director/star Nate Parker—regarding rape accusations lodged against him and this film’s co-scenarist, Jean Celestin, in 1999 by a female Penn State student who later committed suicide in 2012, charges of which Parker was acquitted—to this paragraph only. Whether or not that sordid personal history, and the lengths to which Parker continues to maintain his innocence, ought to be taken into account in assessing the movie he has made is entirely up to the individual viewer. Every work of art, however, deserves to be taken on its own terms, outside of extra-textual concerns. And in the case of Parker’s film, its merits and shortcomings are quite gleamingly evident without such outside factors weighing on its head.
Among its merits is the sheer anger toward the dehumanizing institution of slavery it exudes throughout. That anger starts with Parker’s choice of the film’s title: By adopting the same title as D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking 1915 epic, his film brazenly attempts to redress what is commonly considered Griffith’s endorsement of white supremacy in its valorization of the Ku Klux Klan. Then there’s Parker’s subject: Nat Turner (played by Parker himself), the literate preacher slave who, in Southampton Country, Va., in 1831, led a band of slaves and free blacks into a violent rebellion against white slave-owners—a stark contrast to the scenes of the KKK rescuing a poor white family from predatory blacks in Griffith’s film.
But Parker’s fury isn’t just apparent in its title and subject. As a first-time filmmaker, Parker may be more earnest than artful, but in its first half especially, there’s a purity to that earnestness that is sometimes enlivening. Though The Birth of a Nation doesn’t have the sheer chutzpah of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, its overall solemn tone does allow certain particularly horrifying scenes and images to come through with even greater force than it might have in more fiery hands. Perhaps most memorable in that regard is a slow-motion image, seen from Nat Turner’s helplessly anguished point of view, of a white girl joyfully skipping out of her home leading her black slave-girl playmate with a rope around her neck—a blunt image, but effectively, breathtakingly appalling. Such simplicity is arguably befitting of Nat’s own perspective as the rare slave who was taught how to read at an early age by the relatively generous slave owner Samuel Turner’s (Armie Hammer) mother, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), but who only really grasps the true horrors of slavery after he’s farmed out by Samuel to other slave owners to try to keep slaves in their place by using God’s words in the Bible.
Parker’s bracing disgust, however, coexists with a rather one-dimensionally heroic view of Nat Turner as a kind of mystical warrior prophet. This aspect of the film is made apparent in its opening scene, in which a young Nat is told by a shaman that he is a “child of God” destined for great things, with two moles on his chest symbolizing his brave and fiery spirit. Later, as Nat begins to rally fellow slaves to his cause, he claims that he’s doing God’s bidding, and that this is “not about revenge”—an impression belied not only by Parker’s generally earthbound aesthetics, but by a simplistic cause-and-effect dramaturgy that leaves us with little room to conclude otherwise. The Birth of a Nation plays like a grandiose historical revenge film—Nate Parker’s Braveheart, complete with his own crucifixion-like poses and self-glorifying close-ups (it’s fitting that Mel Gibson was reportedly an advisor on the film’s script). Nat Turner’s story may be worth telling to a new generation, especially in light of the recent flare-up in racial tensions in the U.S. that has given rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But by draining its historical figure of any authentic humanity and turning him into a mythical icon instead, The Birth of a Nation leaves audiences wondering about the deeper, richer and more challenging film it could have been.
Director: Nate Parker
Writer: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King
Release Date: Oct. 7, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.