Cast: Nate Parker, Arnie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union
Director: Nate Parker
Writers: Nate Parker, Jean McGianni Celestin
To say that Nate Parker’s film has attracted some controversy would be a gross understatement. The last couple of years have seen a dramatic intensification of racial issues in the USA, from the augmented outcries of racial attitudes inspired by Trump’s campaign to the prevalent police brutalities that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, so a movie about Nat Turner’s famous slave rebellion was certainly going to grab people’s attention. The title itself, the same used for D.W. Griffith’s technically magnificent but despicably racist silent epic, shows how intent Parker is on making a loud, provocative statement. Then there’s the negative publicity that Parker himself and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin have received with the resurfacing of a rape charge made against them both in 1999. When a film is engulfed by such a critical and emotional storm as this, it can be difficult to look past the controversy and see the film itself for what it is. When I tried, what I found was that the film, while having some very admirable qualities, was ultimately not worth defending.
The film tells the real-life story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), the leader of the most famous slave rebellion in American history. As a child Nat was taught how to read using the Bible and grew to become a preacher. After displaying a natural charisma and an uncanny power of influence over his fellow slaves, Nat’s owner Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer) agrees to lend Nat to the other plantations so that he might preach and spread a message of submission and compliance to their slaves. Nat however starts to question the virtue of the gospel he is ordered to spread as he witnesses countless atrocities at the hands of the white slave owners, including the beating and raping of his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Instead Nat finds inspiration in the Christian teachings which foretell a day of divine justice for the enslaved against the masters and becomes a prophet for the slaves. This results in a revolt led by Nat against the white slave owners in an attempt to seize their freedom and salvation.
By portraying Nat Turner as a Christ-like figure it’s clear that Parker’s chosen approach is to mythologise his story, a fair approach that we’ve seen before in cinema (it’s the same approach that Parker’s friend and advisor Mel Gibson used in Braveheart). The trouble is that Parker idolises his hero to the extent that he fundamentally undermines the very cause he was fighting for. The film portrays Turner as an enigmatic figure, a man destined for greatness and whose own personal suffering, rather than that of his contemporaries, serves as the film’s dramatic crux. When the two major crimes which ultimately trigger the violent climax are perpetrated, that is the rapes of Cherry Turner and of Esther (Gabrielle Union), Parker places the emotional emphasis not on those two women or even their families but solely on Nat. His outrage is what sparks the rebellion. The individual thoughts, hopes and fears of his followers as well as the institutional offences of slavery and the national, political connotations of their mutiny are swept to the side; this rebellion is all about Nat. The other characters don’t exist except to reflect Nat’s greatness.
It’s clear that Parker identifies strongly with Nat Turner and he portrays him confidently and, at times, powerfully. When Nat is taken to the other plantations to deliver his sermons, he witnesses several atrocious crimes carried out by the slave owners and feels the silent judgement of those slaves who regard him as he stands in his position of favour with the whites, serving as a tool for suppression. Here Parker conveys a wonderful mixture of emotions: shame, guilt, empathy, compassion, betrayal, impotence. It is however difficult, and probably wrong, to separate the art from the artist when, like Parker, they have directed, produced, written the picture and cast themselves in the starring role. Thus, when Parker emphasises Turner’s torment and outrage even at the detriment of the story he’s trying to tell, it betrays a vanity on his part. There is a desire here to portray Nat as an almost superhuman figure in his campaign against slavery and it is this emphasis which creates a great disparity between his character’s motivation and the symbol he is supposed to represent.
There is a great story here that is trying to be told but the film ultimately falls victim to Parker’s ambitions. The film seems more concerned with glorifying Nat Turner (and, in turn, Nate Parker) than it is with understanding its subject. It is certainly directed with the conviction of an artist with a powerful story to tell and is hardly ever dull, nor is it without moments of brilliance. However, unlike such recent films as 12 Years a Slave, Parker got so caught up with his own vision and artistry that he ultimately lost sight of that story and the terrible tragedy surrounding it. When a film depicts such a notorious historical episode as slavery, signifying such vital themes as intolerance, prejudice, oppression, subjugation and hatred, there is often a sense that praise for the film is almost compulsory by virtue of it portraying such an important and powerful subject. The Birth of a Nation however is unworthy of its subject. It takes a story of indignation and bloody retribution set during a shameful chapter of history that still haunts people to this day, and reduces it to a vanity project.