Nate Parker, an actor of moderate success, told his agents that he wasn’t going to act until he could play slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. Written by Parker along with a story credit by his college roommate Jean McGianni Celestin, The Birth of a Nation attempts to advise the public of Turner’s bravery against his adversity and his life leading up to the moment of his failed slave rebellion that only lasted 48 hours. Parker may have the correct intentions by making this film and it’s inarguable that films tackling black culture and history are important, but through watching this film, there’s an easily noticeable lack of self-awareness when it comes to the difficult questions that aren’t being asked and these questions unfortunately connect to the recent controversy surrounding Parker and his former roommate.
The Birth of a Nation is an attempt to celebrate a man that was erased from the history books. Turner believed in his freedom and the freedom of his fellow slaves. Sadly, Birth lacks almost any form of nuance and effective craftsmanship. Nat Turner was a man of deep faith, acting as the pastor to his fellow slaves and family members. The Birth of a Nation begins with the pandering feel a faith based film would. Turner learns of the bible and is given false hope by Elizabeth Turner, the matriarch of the Turner plantation, that he may be able to work in the big house and stay out of the fields. In a sad turn of events, Elizabeth’s husband passes away and leaves a note in his will that Nat won’t be allowed to work in the house like he wanted. It’s within these opening moments that Parker lays the foundation for a film that never holds together.
Fast forward about a decade and a half, Turner is now an expert at picking the cotton fields and works as the right hand man to old childhood friend, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). Life has been difficult since his father’s disappearance all those years ago and Nat must act as the man of the house. In hard times, Samuel must bring his former friend turned pastor to other plantations to give energy to the other slaves. On the roadshow of horrors, Parker displays a Requiem for a Dream level of grotesque violence that is hard to witness. However cartoony it feels, we must remind ourselves of the vulgarities of the period and the racial hatred that occurred. Parker may be trying his best at making it seem far-fetched, but we should all know this was all too real.
To address the elephant in the room, we must talk about the misogyny in this film and in real life as well. As previously stated, Parker and his co-writer were charged and subsequently acquitted of sexually assaulting a fellow student who later committed suicide years later. Watching the film without having that come to mind becomes real difficult when two of the four female character in the film are raped and abused so our lead male character can use these moments to further his religious cause for vengeance. The Birth of a Nation hasn’t been declared as a film with the best historical accuracy and nor should it be. Those moments of sexual assault were never reported to have happened in any historical document and have seemingly been included to motivate a man and leave these moments devoid of the female perspective.
I have no issue with dipping into fiction here and there, but this is outright disgusting. If I were to leave my political views out of it, at its worst this is included with no further purpose to move the story forward as other moments have been used to motivate him as well. We should always try and view a film based on its own merits, but these moments give significance to the horrific crime they have been accused of and show the underlying sexism within their viewpoints. I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to watch a film by Roman Polanski or Woody Allen. Not having seen the entirety of their works, I can’t say for certain that it isn’t evident, but I can watch their films based on their own merits and not be reminded of the crimes they have admitted to or not.
Nate Parker was presumed innocent by a jury of 12. In the court of law, he is deemed innocent. But we don’t live in a just world of right and wrong. Juries and the court system have not been fair to the victims of these awful crimes. This case wouldn’t be the first time a rapist was let free, if they did or did not do it. At the most, The Birth of a Nation could be seen as another piece of evidence in a trial in the court of opinion. At the least, it’s documentation of the misogyny and acceptance of rape culture within our times and used as justification by placing it in the historical context of slaves and slave ownership. The film on its surface does not condone these crimes, but underneath is a far more frightening acceptance that as long as they exist to move along a movement for a man, than it can be artistically justified.
Away from the bad first year film student filmmaking and horrific misogyny, there’s a good film that is yet to be made of Nat Turner. There’s a film that explores the religious martyrdom and mental illness within those decisions. In an alternate Nat Turner film, the female characters would have narrative agency in a story that is about more than one man and his motivations. There’s a movie that could explore the character motivations and psychology with intelligence and nuance. It’s easy to see The Birth of a Nation as a film made to inform the people of the world of the injustice against the black race over the past 250 years. It’s hard to see it as a movie that succeeds in telling a complete and fair story about the life of Nat Turner and the cause that he fought for.
The Birth of a Nation
- Nate Parker's performance in powerful, if not a little one note
- Occasional beautiful photography
- Bad filmmaking 101 is on display
- Half of the female characters are used as rape victims to motivate male lead
- Most acting in the film is stilted
- Screenplay is incomplete to say the least