IT’S HARD TO know where to start talking about The Birth of a Nation. It’s hard to remember the last time a movie showed up with this much off-screen baggage, from its incendiary political relevance to its record-setting acquisition at Sundance to, of course, the controversy surrounding the 1999 rape accusation against director Nate Parker.
But what’s on the screen matters, too, starting with the title. It was just over a century ago that terrible racist D.W. Griffith’s terribly racist silent epic The Birth of the Nation revolutionized the American film industry while repeating poisonous mantras about life in the post-Civil War South and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. For Parker to reclaim Griffith’s title and stamp it on his telling of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner is a genius move.
Parker’s boldness doesn’t stop there. He also stars as Turner, a messianic figure who’s born into bondage but learns to read and gets hired out by his master (Armie Hammer) to preach the gospel of obedience to his fellow Virginia slaves. After witnessing act after act of institutional cruelty, including a tooth-smashing that puts anything in Marathon Man to shame, a quiet fury begins to boil in his blood.
Sexual violence plays a role in Turner’s awakening as well. His wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is brutally assaulted, and Parker’s camera lingers on her beaten, swollen face. There’s no looking away from the inhumanity, nor should there be, but Birth of a Nation sometimes edges close to well-intentioned sadism. Every viewer’s tolerance for the level of damage depicted to black bodies—in what is, after all, a dramatic entertainment—will differ.
Eventually, Parker organizes and ultimately launches a rebellion, one that killed dozens of white men, women, and children. As he rallies his comrades, his words could be lifted from a Black Lives Matter rally in 2016, which is, of course, the point. Slavery, as literally defined, is long gone, but its after-effects, its insidious mutations, and its inherently race-based violence remain firmly lodged in the American character.
Parker has said that the bloody, muddy combat scenes were inspired by Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, and they are effective. By the time the rebellion comes (spoiler alert!) to an inauspicious end, exhaustion and pathos morph into righteous wrath during a truly inspiring coda.
The reason this movie was purchased at Sundance by Fox Searchlight Pictures, however, wasn’t so that the Fox conglomerate (which until recently employed Roger Ailes and continues to serve the needs of Donald Trump) could hold up an African American domestic terrorist as a hero. That $17.5 million price tag was based on the company’s success—both in prestige and box office—with 12 Years a Slave three years ago.
Birth isn’t as artistically sophisticated as 12 Years, but it has the potential to be much more impactful. At the advance screening I attended, several voices spontaneously called out “Black Lives Matter!” and recited the names of African American victims of police violence as the end credits rolled. This sort of demonstration will surely be repeated across the nation over the next few weeks, and it seems to me like a healthy thing for white folks to be exposed to.
Last, but certainly not least, Parker’s problematic past forces a revisiting of the question: How much should we allow an artist’s personal life to influence our appreciation of their work? Everyone’s got their own answer, and only a few of them are totally wrong. For me, I hope that Parker’s zealous, principled vision inspires people to become more aware of the flaws in the world around them. And that he has become more aware of the flaws within himself.
(Also, Nate, comparing yourself to Mel Gibson? Bad idea these days.)