At this point there is no separating art from artist in the case of Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation, his debut feature film as a writer and director. He also stars in the movie and produced it, so this is unquestionably his movie. The Birth of a Nation is neither the stunning achievement its hype train promises, nor is it the worst first-time feature from an actor that I’ve ever seen. But its mixed-bag reality casts some aspersion on its triumphant Sundance premiere back in January. At the time, I doubted that its success at the festival was because of #OscarsSoWhite, but now, having seen it, I do think that was a factor. Like me, a lot of people wanted this to be an answer to the Oscars’ ongoing diversity problem, and Sundance happened at the height of #OscarsSoWhite2016. Birth isn’t terrible, so it got lauded because it was an obvious antidote. But really it’s just an okay movie with some problems and some meaningful parts, and it trends toward the sort of self-indulgent direction you often get with actor/directors.
Parker stars as Nat Turner, a slave-cum-preacher who leads a slave rebellion in 1831. The film starts when Nat is a young boy, playing hide-and-seek with his master’s son, Samuel Turner. Samuel seems to genuinely be young Nat’s friend, and the Turners are presented as relatively good white people, who generally treat their slaves well. Except there’s not enough food for all of them and young Nat goes hungry, which prompts his father to risk stealing food in order to feed his son. Predictably, that doesn’t go well.
Parker effectively shows how slavery destroys everyone, debunking the notion of “good white folks” by showing the casual cruelty of people used to owning other human beings, and detailing the degradations big and small, violent and passive that slaves suffered every day. But Parker struggles with the actual rebellion part of the movie. Travelling around the county with Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), now grown and his master, Nat sees the horrors other slaves with more blatantly cruel masters suffer, and his sermons change from messages of divine suffering to fiery calls for retribution. But he isn’t moved to act until two women are violated: His wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and Esther, another slave on the Turner plantation (Gabrielle Union, in a part so diminished by editing she’s basically an extra).
There’s no historical evidence for this which makes these rapes Parker’s invention, which is ironic at best and troubling at worst, given everything that has come to light surrounding Parker and his past rape allegation. These attacks are not portrayed graphically, but it is clear that this is what is happening, and in removing women from the moment, it makes their violation about men and how it affects men. And it is sorely tempting to read into the choice that these rapes are violent and committed despite protest as a frame of reference for Parker’s own stunted understanding of consent. This is when it becomes impossible to separate art from artist—an accused rapist made a movie that prominently features rape. We’re not supposed to think about it?
And there are still the run of the mill pedestrian problems, like the totally unclear timeline. The timeline is shot to hell because Parker is more invested in establishing Turner as a prophet than he is in keying in the tangible details of Turner’s world, and it takes end title cards to clarify it. Braveheart is the model for this kind of movie—Parker did consult with Mel Gibson, another layer of WTFery—and while Braveheart has the same “female violation as motivation” problem, at least it an excellent job of mapping the terrain of the conflict so that you can appreciate the scope and the scale of what’s happening.
But Nate Parker, Director, isn’t interested in anything other than Nate Parker, Actor, saying the words of Nate Parker, Writer. Birth has a streak of vanity that’s pretty common to actor/directors, but it feels especially out of place here, given the solemnity of the subject matter, and it shortchanges the actual uprising, rendering it almost an afterthought. There are moments in Birth that work, particularly with the destruction of the Turner family, and the final shot is really powerful, but overall The Birth of a Nation is an average actor/director vanity project. Nat Turner’s story deserves more.
Attached - Nate Parker at AOL's Build Series last week in New York.