The Birth of a Nation was the biggest film non-happening of 2016. This was the film that was bought at Sundance for $17.5 million. It was thought it was going to be one of the critical hits of the year, and folks were talking up which categories would snag Oscar nominations. It was also the big coming out party for director/writer/star Nate Parker, whom most filmgoers would have recognized as having smaller acting roles in The Secret Life of Bees and Red Tails, if they knew of him at all. He was to be the Next Big Thing.
Then his college day problems either caught up with him, or derailed him, depending on how you view it. Parker and his co-writer/former roommate Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of rape years ago. Parker was tried and acquitted. Celestin was tried and convicted, but the conviction was turned over on appeal. All the general public knows is that Parker said the sex occurred, but was consensual.
In any event, the digging up of Parker’s past doomed the film. (Domestic box office was less than $16 million.) Of course, this raises a boatload of questions that have nothing to do with the film. For example, aren’t we presumed innocent until proven guilty, or does only apply to crimes not having to do with sex? If the law found the two not guilty, how can we presume to find them guilty? It’s easy to jump on the “I hate sexual violence” bandwagon (and who isn’t on that bandwagon?). But how can we assume to know what happened years ago? For some people, what happened years ago changes everything about the film; for others, it doesn’t affect how they view the film at all. Complicating all of this is the suicide of the girl involved a few years ago. That’s a tragedy, no matter what did or didn’t happen. If sexual violence occurred, then we can likely assume (though we can never really know) that it could have been a key factor in her untimely death. In any event, the whole episode tainted the film, and everyone’s investment in it went belly up.
One can’t even escape into viewing the film itself without the history of its main contributors. A central plot point, made a motivating event for understanding one of the most complex anti-slavery acts in American history, is the rape of Nat Turner’s wife by white men. Though there is some limited evidence that Turner had a wife, if he did, there is no evidence that she was raped, or that any sexual assault was one of the big motivating factor in Turner’s rebellion. For those who believe that Parker and Celestin were guilty, it’s the highest of ironies that they would have their central film character here be motivated by revenge for a rape.
Other concerns around the film, but not touching the film itself, is how it would have performed if Parker and Celestin had never had that past, or if that information had never come out. It’s all speculation, of course, but there are strong opinions on both sides. I personally tend to think it would have certainly performed better than it has, but I don’t think it would have been the hit the distributors were hoping for.
And speaking of the film’s context (he wrote, wiping his brow…), one has to place it, at least for a moment, in the context the film’s creators intended. The film has the same name as America’s first great cinematic masterpiece, the brilliant, breathtakingly racist classic, The Birth of a Nation, released in early 1915, and directed by D.W. Griffith. Some teachers of American film have shied away from showing the film in recent years because of its racism. When I was teaching American Film, I insisted on showing it for the same reasons; it needs to be seen, talked about, thought about, and faced. Parker’s film, in taking the same name for itself, is obviously trying to tip the scales back, or at least answer that film’s support for the Ku Klux Klan with his own story of Turner’s Rebellion. His film’s failure at the box office may well have doomed that effort, but time will ultimately tell.
Wading through all the baggage, I came to the film itself (finally!). As a first feature effort, it shows a talented newcomer who is confident in his filmmaking, if not yet assured. It’s a good-looking film, sometimes self-consciously so, which raises its own issues when the film’s plot turns dark and violent. (12 Years a Slave was also accused of the same visual romanticism, but its beauty was less obvious and more of a piece with the whole film.)
The film tries to be smooth, but is rather episodic in nature, featuring each significant act (whether negative, as a beating, or positive, as in courting and marrying) in a rather unconnected fashion. Since Parker apparently doesn’t want Turner’s violent acts to be the simple explosion of a man who couldn’t take it anymore, the requisite build-up to such an explosion is missing. The rebellion becomes, in essence, just another episode in a life filled with them. One could say that the sheer unfairness and violence at the heart of slavery should be enough to explain, if not justify, the violence. But Parker tries to weave in Turner’s spirituality, which was real and deeply felt. In fact, the scenes of Turner preaching, either with joyful abandon, distraction, or even deep conflict as he preached to his fellow slaves, are the highlight of the film. They are acted well, and contain none of the painful phoniness of most actors who try to act “religious” in films. I don’t know Parker’s current state of heart or belief, but he obviously has a background in real Christian spirituality, and he places its expressions well in terms of historical context.
What doesn’t work, and what may ultimately have been the reason for the film’s lack of success if Parker’s past hadn’t already accomplished it, is the turn toward violence. It’s not well established, nor well explained. Introducing—necessarily—the religious element turns the film from the “understandable reaction to all the evils of slavery” to something more than that, something other than that. But as much as the film takes us along on Turner’s ride as he matures, marries, preaches and begins to internalize the sheer evil of slavery, we suddenly find ourselves watching instead of connecting as he decides he has a divine mandate to kill a slew of white people. There are, according to history, a number of reasons that led to that conclusion, including his reading of certain scriptural passages, seeing of visions, and “signs” in the sky. But the film tends to lose the viewer here, and we are thrown into a series of acts that are as abhorrent as those we’ve seen earlier in the film.
Then the film whitewashes (pun not intended) the violence and ends by sanctifying Turner. Around 60 whites were killed in Turner’s Rebellion, including women and children. It’s true that Parker has kept his violence to a minimum in terms of what we see and how we see it throughout the film, so it’s consistent that he doesn’t make the viewer wallow in blood and death toward the end. But the horror of what Turner did is too lightly balanced against what we’ve seen so far. All of the cruelty and violence the film presents is unjust and cruel, but the film refuses to take that perspective—a greatly missed opportunity. Are we to take Turner’s violence as justified? It’s a great question for discussion, and the film leans in that direction. But since his motivations are not clearly presented, and the viewer is left on the side of the road on Turner’s journey to the slaughter, the film tends to obscure the issues rather than highlighting them.
The film veers even further from a clear-eyed view of Turner’s acts by crowning him with saintly glory at the end. One could easily have viewed Turner as a man driven to violence by the violence of the system in which he lived. Or he could have been presented as a precursor to John Brown, where a Bible-believing person went off the rails into error, if not mental instability. But the film’s elevation of Turner at the end weighs the film down to a personal history instead of elevating it to an examination of more complex issues, which Turner’s Rebellion contains in abundance. We don’t even get a “violence begets violence” perspective, but it’s indirectly suggested that Turner’s acts must be justified by what happened to and around him, since the film cinematically justifies him (and I use that term both theologically and in its ordinary definition).
Then there is the (sigh) general presentation of whites as bad and blacks as good. If that’s his statement in attempting to right the wrongs of the first Birth of a Nation, it’s understandable. But 100 years later, this comes across as just too binary, to use a current phrase. Yes, there are whites who aren’t presented as evil incarnate, and a few even have a positive trait or two. But again—a missed opportunity.
Only time will tell what will happen to this film. It may be “rediscovered” in a few years’ time, and who knows what will happen to Parker. After all, Hollywood has a short memory, and forgives—sometimes. If nothing else, the film is a major cinematic Rorschach test. If you do manage to see it, let me know what you see there….