Directed by Nate Parker.
2016. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Penelope Ann Miller
Aja Naomi King
Jackie Earle Haley
Mark Boone Junior
Roger Guenveur Smith
I must have started this review twenty times. Each time, I got a sentence or two in and couldn't decide how to proceed. I just wasn't sure if the path I was starting on would lead me where I wanted to go. I'm done agonizing over my opening. I'm just going to start typing and let the words take me where they may. To paraphrase an old saying, I'm letting Jesus take the wheel. This is what I'm reduced to in trying to write a review of a film with more to unpack than any in recent memory. As if all the inherent luggage of a film about a violent slave uprising that takes its title from one of the most divisive movies of all-time isn't enough, The Birth of a Nation brings with it the disturbing past of its director and star. Normally, I'm the first one to say we must separate the art from the artist and judge the work on its own merit. Ultimately, that is what I will do. However, the noise surrounding Nate Parker is too loud to ignore.
If you've paid any attention at all to the journey of The Birth of a Nation from the Sundance Film Festival to a theater near you, you've probably heard about Nate Parker's acquittal of rape charges stemming from an incident in 1999 when he was a sophomore wrestler at Penn State University. The charges came to light as hype for the film began to build. Lots of information about the events of the night in question also became public knowledge. All of it is troubling and complicated. For starters, Parker's close friend, Jean McGianni Celestin, was also charged in the same incident, and was convicted. It just so happens Celestin is credited as working with Parker to create the story told by the film. The young woman at the heart of this case was white. If you're keeping score that's two black guys accused of raping a white woman, then going on to make a movie depicting extreme racial tension and, itself, involving the rape of a black female character by white men. Do you see how messy this is getting?
But wait, there's more.
The most unfortunate consequence of whatever transpired is that Parker and Celestin's accuser never seemed to recover from what happened to her and eventually committed suicide. Parker knew nothing of this development until it was told to him by an interviewer. How he addressed this, and the trial as a whole, left a lot to be desired. In fact, many have criticized Parker for trying to paint himself as a victim. It's also been said he's been smug and cavalier about the whole ordeal. This is especially troubling since, to many, it appears he merely got away with sexual assault, rather than being innocent. The final anvil dropped onto the head of this film? One of its stars, Gabrielle Union, a real life rape survivor and the woman playing one of the characters that is raped, wrote an editorial in The Los Angeles Times making it clear she had no knowledge of the case prior to filming and reprimanding her co-star and director in the process.
It's clear Parker's personal life is woven into the fabric of The Birth of a Nation. When setting out to review the film, I have to do just that, review the film. However, even after we manage to disentangle it from the muck of its surroundings, we're left with a film that gives us much to ponder. It's based on the very real slave revolt of 1831 led by Nat Turner (Parker) during which approximately sixty white people were killed. In its aftermath, over two hundred blacks were killed as retribution whether they had anything to do with the uprising, or not. Turner himself was one of these. In order to make an example of him, he was not only hanged, but his body was completely dismembered including the removal of his head. Turner's life leading up to this is where the film plays fast and loose with the facts. Because of this, the film as a whole is historical fiction.
We meet Nat as a very young boy on a plantation in Southampton, Virginia. Along with Elizabeth Turner (Miller), his slave master's wife, we learn that Nat is a very intelligent lad. She takes him under his wing and teaches him to read, but only The Holy Bible. Other books, she warns, are for white people. She brings Nat to church with her and allows him to read his Bible to the all-white congregation. As he grows into adulthood, he becomes a preacher for his fellow slaves. Word of this, combined with how well-behaved the slaves are on the Turner plantation, spreads to other slaveholders in Southampton. Since many of them are having issues with controlling their slaves, they decide to offer Nat's master Samuel (Hammer) money to have Nat come and preach on their plantations. The hope is that hearing another slave deliver a sermon urging them to be obedient to their masters, both heavenly and on Earth, will quell the insurrection the whites are so afraid is brewing. Samuel agrees and the two travel from place to place where Nat does as instructed. Mostly. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Nat witnesses some rather ungodly brutality which weighs heavily on his soul.
I once posted an article discussing the lengths to which I often go to avoid news about certain movies before I've seen them. The hope is that I can go into these films as cold as possible, thus giving myself the ability to form an opinion on what I've seen without the influence of others clouding my judgement. With the story of Nat Turner, I already knew the end result. Having the movie spoiled for me was not a concern. In it place was a curiosity about how others received it. Turner is such a controversial figure, I was particularly interested in what people who were not black thought of it. The reviews I've read (and listened to) were all over the map. However, one of the complaints common across most of them was that the setup took too long. I understand the complain, but I disagree with it. What Turner did is so polarizing along racial lines, the film needs this time to justify it for viewers on both sides of the divide. My own misgivings about this portion of the movie is not that it took too long, but that it could've been more tightly packed. As it stands, there is lots there, but occasionally has a tendency to meander in its efforts to make sure we know Nat is a well-meaning and deeply spiritual man. There are the heart-to-heart talks with his mother, Nancy (Ellis), the building of his relationship with Samuel, the evolving way in which his fellow slaves regard him, and of course, Nat's tender love affair with Cherry (King). Mixed in to all this is some extremely powerful imagery and incredibly tense and hard to watch moments. These are the things the movie needs more of. While all the relationship stuff is necessary character building, it is also fairly typical storytelling. It's those scenes that either make us shudder, cringe, or ball and tighten our fists in anger that really drive home the point the rest of the story is trying to make.
One of the things the story does do exceedingly well is use religion as a means to making itself relevant to current events. The too easy parallel to make, given we're talking African-Americans raging against an unjust system, is with the Black Lives Matter movement. I won't begrudge anyone who wants to make that connection because it's the one staring us in the face throughout the film's entire runtime. However, that's not the one I made. The one I focused on was the notion of who and what exactly is a terrorist is a post-911 world. In the vernacular of the mainstream media, they're all radical Islamics. However, the "radical" part of that phrase gets lost and it simply becomes Muslims. Even more damaging than portraying all terrorists as Muslims is what has resulted. That is, having all Muslims being portrayed as terrorists hell-bent on destroying the western way of life in the name of Allah. Turner is Christian. Still, his uprising is in the name of his God putting him on equal footing with jihadists, everywhere. This makes The Birth of a Nation a tough sell to white audiences. It's a different kind of black movie than the ones that typically receive attention during awards season. Those films, including the recent Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave and Oscar nominee Selma, play heavily into white guilt. They show whites as violent and aggressive oppressors, as this one does. The difference is the blacks in those films are merely out to stop being treating like beasts of burden and prey. In this film, the goal is retribution. This has always made Turner harder to sell to whites as a hero. It's one thing to accept someone mustering up all the humanity possible to remain peaceful in the face of violence to show whites the error of their ways. It's quite another to have someone treat them as inhumanely as they treated us and tell them he did a good thing. Yet, that's precisely the task this film takes on. It's asking for them to see someone they naturally consider to be a terrorist as a freedom fighter. That's something many whites are simply unable to do unless they themselves are the terrorists. In other words, the colonists taking up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War is somehow different from Nat Turner's revolt pretty much just because.
A lot of what I'm going on about will be lost on viewers focusing on the story at hand. That's okay. It places the spotlight back on the film, itself. At delivering this film we have to assess the technical and artistic aspects of it. As it is for everything else about this film, the lightning rod is Nate Parker. He not only plays the starring role, he directs, and as mentioned, wrote the story. His best, and most consistent work is done as an actor. He brings a wealth of emotion to the role. Somewhat unexpectedly, considering the content, he also exudes a rather effortless sex appeal. This was on display recently when he played the leading man in Beyond the Lights, so we knew he had it. Again, we just weren't expecting it, here. As a writer is where he is at his weakest. His story hits all the beats we expect from what is essentially a revenge thriller. It even hits them on time. And that's the problem. We can see every development coming from a mile away. The film also struggles to fit in all the characters in a way that makes us feel for any of them, aside from Nate. We care for them, or hate them, the way we would anyone involved in such atrocities, but not necessarily for them as individuals. This leaves the film a bit cold in some regards. It's as a director where Parker shows the most potential. Admittedly, the pacing is a little clunky as the film winds its way to the climactic revolt. There is also the issue of having too many things happen just off screen. The intent seems to be letting our imagination fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, it just waters down what's taking place. When he chooses to actually show things, however, Parker, no doubt greatly aided by cinematographer Elliot Davis, seems to have a natural gift for beautifully framing some rather unsettling imagery.
The cast Parker has to work with is strong, but not as fully utilized as perhaps is needed. This goes back to the issues with the script. They simply aren't given enough time to really make the desired impact as characters. Aside from Parker, Armie Hammer and Aunjanue Ellis fare best. Hammer plays Samuel as a "good Christian" man who treats his slaves better than every other plantation owner. We can see he's a conflicted man, but one clearly with a price. Ellis provides the film's most soulful performance as Nat's mother. The shame of it is she disappears for really long stretches. Penelope Ann Miller is nearly as good when on screen, but she is absent for even longer stretches. That said, she provides one of the film's most emotional moments, late in the film. Aja Naomi King provides one of the most visually emotional moments and is overall solid as Nat's eventual wife. Neither Jackie Earle Haley and Colman Domingo are quite wasted, here, but both could have had a far greater presence in the film. Sadly, Gabrielle Union is wasted, save for the aftermath of her aforementioned rape scene.
Despite the issues with the supporting characters, The Birth of a Nation is a really good film. Like the man who inspired it, it's bound to be polarizing. The subject matter and the director are both enough to turn some viewers off before even seeing the film. Therefore, who you are may have as much to do with how much, or how little, you like it even more than with most films. Additionally, it works better if watched metaphorically than it does as a surface watch. What plays out in a literal sense is fine, but it benefits from closer inspection and its relationship to today's world. So many things feel as if they were pulled from today's headlines and retrofitted to the nineteenth century. Regrettably, they weren't. They're just still relevant.