Ever since it’s rapturous premiere at January 2016’s Sundance Festival, The Birth of a Nation has been fighting an uphill battle. This is especially disappointing as the film began 2016 on top of that hill. After being purchased by Fox Searchlight in the biggest acquisition deal in Sundance’s history it was met with nearly unanimous praise from completely ecstatic audiences. Now it’s struggling for box-office returns with the hope that possible Oscar gold will bring it back out into the public’s graces. These chances are slim to none sadly, most poignantly due to recently unearthed allegations against writer/director/star Nate Parker. The details of these allegations are for a whole other essay entirely, but nevertheless they cast a large shadow over what was once a highly praised piece of art.
Even critics are nervous to approach this film in fear of having to discuss the controversy, but as previously mentioned in my review for Mel Gibson’s Blood Father, it’s best to view film subjectively. It’s best to separate the art from the artist, if at all possible.
The art in question tells the true story of Nat Turner, a black slave living in Southampton County, Virginia during the early part of the 1800’s. Turner went against the normal standards at an early age and quickly learned to read using the only book that “non-white folk” are able to have: The Holy Bible. During a particularly bad drought with restless and hungry slaves, plantation owners started to catch wind of the “negro preacher” and started paying his master to bring him to many plantations to preach specifically selected Bible verses in order to ease the irate slaves.
In 1831, a guilty Nat Turner realizes the Bible isn’t telling him to serve his masters; it’s telling him to eradicate his masters. Along with many of his friends and other plantation slaves, Turner launches a rebellion that ends in copious amounts of bloodshed on both sides.
There is actually a limited amount of information known about Nat Turner, let alone the uprising he led, so Nate Parker had the arduous task of filling in the holes between major events. For the most part, his attempt at doing so was successful. The Birth of a Nation is at times tender and other times brutally realistic. Nate Parker gives a restrained and controlled performance as Nat Turner to great effect, particularly when his breaking point comes. It comes from a place of pain and sudden wrath and it leads to genuinely chilling sequences once he and his followers take up arms in the middle of the night.
You can feel the passion that Nate Parker has for this story in every frame. He takes every opportunity he can to do something new with the camera to show off excellent cinematography, notably in a few “dream-like” sequences where it nearly gets metaphysical in nature. There are many elements that Parker is juggling in this film and that’s where the film begins to falter. He seems to be torn between two different films that he wants to make as one. The first of which is a more violent and reactionary film on par with other films of the genre like 12 Years a Slave. The other is a more personal exploration of a man of faith and how his religion is consistently manipulated to cause harm.
This is by far the more interesting story and the film strives when this is its focus. There are times when both of these ideas do mesh together quite nicely, resulting in truly poignant observations about religion then and religion today through the lens of violence. However, when these tones don’t mesh, it causes major problems in the storytelling, particularly in the way Nate Parker fleshes out the story to fill them.
This is where the previously mentioned controversy begins to taint the piece with off putting questions of intent. The inciting incident that the film seems to imply is the cause of Nat Turner’s violent change of heart is not an easy one to witness. Sexual violence of any kind is difficult to witness on screen, but the scene in question with this film nearly goes overboard. It is a disturbing sequence and the aftermath of it is shocking and heartbreaking. Without knowing the history, these scenes are handled effectively and provide the actors with opportunities to really show off their commitment to their roles, so I was disappointed to discover it’s not based on any actual history whatsoever; it’s a fictional narrative extension by Nate Parker to provide Nat Turner’s character with a particular reason to finally get violent.
Normally, such embellishments are commonplace for most biopics, but with the shadow of controversy over the film, it colors the scene in a different way that unintentionally harms the film as a result. It shows a lack of faith in the story of Turner being enough to have audiences on board with his struggle. The decision to resort to nearly exploitative sexual violence to falsely describe Nat Turner’s intentions is unfortunate. This isn’t the only scene that was created for the film that has proven to be problematic, but is surely going down as the most notorious.
This is a frustrating dilemma. There is much to love about The Birth of a Nation. Before doing fact checking and addressing Parker’s controversy, the film is inspiring. The final sequence alone and imagery it portrays are enough to bring tears to your eyes. But alas, that elephant in the room is loud, ugly, and distracting. With proper expectations in check, it’s still a bold and important film many will benefit from seeing, as well as an impressive first feature from Nate Parker. It’s just a shame it’s been compromised in the way it has.