A few hours after Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” premiered to thunderous applause at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Variety published a largely glowing review, hailing the movie as a flawed but vital chronicle of American slavery — one that was told, crucially, from the perspective of the black men and women who endured it.
The review also acknowledged that Parker’s debut feature, a brutal yet sympathetic portrait of the rebel leader Nat Turner (played by Parker himself), was destined to provoke and polarize. “No film worthy of this particular historical subject,” the Variety critic wrote, “could hope or expect to avoid controversy.”
Full disclosure: That critic was me, and at the time I had no idea that my guess would turn out to be right for entirely the wrong reasons.
As anyone knows who has followed recent industry headlines, the conversation that has consumed “The Birth of a Nation” has had little to do with the film’s racially and politically charged subject matter, its confrontational images or its disturbing relevance in the era of Black Lives Matter, and everything to do with the rape accusations that its writer-director-star faced as a student at Penn State almost 20 years earlier.
Parker was found not guilty; Jean Celestin, his friend and future co-writer on the film, was convicted but later had the verdict overturned. But the filmmakers’ legal exoneration has done little to vindicate them publicly in the wake of the renewed spotlight on the case, as well as the news that Parker and Celestin’s accuser committed suicide in 2012.
It’s an unspeakably awful story that, by dint of Parker’s obvious talent and growing fame, has become a matter of intense public interest. It’s not a discussion I enter into casually. Personal tragedies have a way of making discussions of art and culture seem trivial, even callous — and they can be, when the discussion remains limited to commercial prospects and Oscar predictions.
But for better or worse, the widespread perception of “The Birth of a Nation” as an irredeemably tainted work — a cultural bombshell that may have blown up in its own face — offers a chastening reminder of the eternal difficulty of separating the art from the artist. That difficulty has become only more apparent in light of Parker’s decision to address the rape charges in a series of discomfiting press interviews.
While Parker is in the extraordinary if unenviable position of experiencing all this blowback at the very moment of his career breakthrough, he is hardly the first filmmaker whose embattled personal history has cast a bitter pall over his work.
Earlier this year, the premiere of Woody Allen’s “Café Society” led to renewed focus on the allegations that the director had sexually abused his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow. This November will see the theatrical release of Mel Gibson’s war drama “Hacksaw Ridge,” which will surely face tough scrutiny from those with still-fresh memories of Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirades.
Incidentally, Gibson’s own pathologies of masculinity and martyrdom are entirely relevant to “The Birth of a Nation,” which struck me then, and strikes me now, as basically a black version of “Braveheart” — a blood-soaked, testosterone-driven war epic in which scenes of intolerable oppression are meant to stoke a righteous bloodlust in the characters and the viewers alike.
I don’t much care for “Braveheart,” as it happens, but there’s no denying that its narrative of oppression and resistance has a crudely riveting power. And what gives Parker’s film its electric charge — its vitality as a work of historical and cinematic reclamation — is the way it recasts that narrative within the context of a real-life slave uprising, turning suffering African American men and women into vengeful agents of their own destiny.
If it’s especially hard to separate the art from the artist ... it’s because the artist in this case is almost always in front of the camera.
All these thoughts came flooding back when I went to see “The Birth of a Nation” again on Tuesday night, my first viewing in the eight months since I saw it at Sundance. My hope was that the movie would hold up even under closer scrutiny, that its virtues would persist regardless of whatever its director may have done.
What I saw that night struck me as a film unmistakably diminished, though not necessarily for the reasons I had feared. Any number of good, even great movies can feel leached of impact on a second or third encounter, and “The Birth of a Nation” — whose strengths lie almost entirely in its steady and suspenseful narrative buildup, its accrual of shocking moments en route to a cathartic release — seemed to have more or less exhausted its secrets the first time around.
If anything, the movie feels even shorter on second viewing, which speaks to Parker’s sense of narrative economy, but also his tendency to cut away suddenly or throw in a slick montage when a closer, more lingering appreciation of the horrors on display might be called for. (It’s one of many instances in which “The Birth of a Nation,” for all its virtues, feels far less artful or sustained than Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.”)
That expedient, mechanical storytelling approach can be detected even in two scenes that have understandably become some of the picture’s most talked-about moments. In one of them, Turner’s wife, Cherry (played by Aja Naomi King), is brutally beaten and raped by white slave-catchers; in another, a slave named Esther (played by Gabrielle Union) is forced to have sex with a white plantation guest.
In both scenes the act of sexual assault is implied rather than shown, but the very fact that Parker and Celestin sought to heighten their film’s emotional impact in this fashion has been called out by some of their critics as the ultimate hypocrisy. (Union has since spoken out about her experience as a sexual assault survivor, as well as her newly conflicted feelings about Parker and the movie.)
I myself was struck by the diagrammatic placement of these scenes within the narrative, and by the film’s relative disinterest in its female characters otherwise. Their suffering here is largely treated as a catalyst for vengeance, a means to an end.
If it’s especially hard to separate the art from the artist while watching “The Birth of a Nation,” it’s because the artist in this case is almost always in front of the camera. Parker’s performance as Turner is grave, measured, astutely judged; it also plays rather differently, to these eyes, than it did eight months ago. It’s hard to look at the actor’s face now without being reminded of his off-screen blunders, his vain and defensive attempts to reclaim ownership of his moment.
At Sundance, there was no mistaking Parker’s talent, or his swagger. It takes a certain effrontery, after all, to cast yourself as a Christ-like martyr figure, and to re-appropriate the title of a great but notoriously racist 1915 cinematic landmark. I didn’t begrudge the director his chutzpah, which undoubtedly helped him get his passion project made, and which seemed rooted in an honest and unimpeachable sense of the project’s importance. It also seemed rooted in his Christian faith, which he has repeatedly cited in interviews since the rape charges resurfaced.
In my original review, I noted that “The Birth of a Nation” was perhaps most effective as “a theological provocation, one that grapples fearlessly with the intense spiritual convictions that drove Turner to do what he had previously considered unthinkable.” It’s a judgment that I stand by even more strongly now. The most nuanced, provocative and unpredictable element of Parker’s movie remains its tough-minded understanding of Turner’s roots in Baptist theology — someone who led his followers to violence because of, rather than in spite of, his identification with Christ and his immersion in Scripture.
“He is a God of love, Nat. Don’t forget that,” says a dissenting fellow slave, to which Turner retorts, “I won’t. Nor will I forget that He is a God of wrath.” Wrath versus love, revenge versus forgiveness, Old Testament versus New — these are age-old spiritual contradictions that have kept theologians arguing for centuries, and “The Birth of a Nation” seems more instructive on that particular score than its maker may have intended.
To watch the film now is to be reminded of the need for activism and justice, but also the folly of choosing retribution over mercy. If you see “The Birth of a Nation” (and I recommend that you do), look closely at the man who occupies almost every frame. You may see Nat Turner; you may see Nate Parker. Either way, it’s hard not to see a man caught up in the thrill of his own crusade — and not realizing, perhaps, that his own day of judgment is very much on the march.