BY THOMAS BREEN
The Birth of a Nation is a serviceable biopic rendered extraordinary, controversial, and unsavory by circumstances seemingly unrelated to the movie itself.
On the one hand, the movie offers an ambitious and much needed counterpoint to Hollywood's sordid history of stripping black voices from black stories. The movie follows the origin, realization, and aftermath of a slave rebellion in 1830s Virginia led by Nat Turner, a slave who learned to read, became a preacher, and found in the Bible ample justification for the overthrow of Southern plantation society. Nate Parker, the movie's young writer / director / star, tells the story from the perspective of the slaves themselves, charting the abuse, resilience, and solidarity that culminated in the righteous uprising.
Furthermore, the movie's title is an explicit homage to (or, rather, re-appropriation of) one of the most influential and racist movies of all time: D. W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation, a pioneering work in cinematic storytelling that fondly recalls the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. In Nate Parker's hands, the title of the 2016 movie points towards the origin of a different nation: not the racist white America that legitimized lynching and codified racial discrimination in post-Civil War America, but an insurgent black civil rights movement that refused to kowtow to even the most violent of oppressors.
On the unsavory and unsettling side, the movie and its director have been the subject of heated debate over the past month after the revelation of a rape accusation against Parker from when he was a student at Penn State in 1999. Parker was acquitted of the charge, and the victim wound up committing suicide in 2012.
While Parker has oscillated between defiant, penitent, and contemplative in various interviews he's given about the alleged rape (as well as about his male privilege and its accompanying attitude of indifference), the conversation about on-campus sexual violence perpetrated by the young filmmaker has followed closely in the wake of any conversation around the film itself.
Many film critics are reluctant to judge a movie based on such "extra-textual" concerns, and understandably so. The movie as a self-contained work of art is open to a variety of interpretations once it makes the transition from being just in the head of its creator(s) to being available on screens for audiences to grapple with. After a movie has been created and been made available to watch, it belongs as much to the audience as it does to the director. The Birth of a Nation is a movie, like any other movie, that can be watched and thought about and appreciated and fought over without any knowledge of the roiling debate around it.
So, what about the movie itself? The Birth of a Nation is an affecting, uneven, and relatively conventional biopic. Nate Parker as writer, director and actor carves out a narrative arc for Nat Turner that contains little surprise but brims with ambition, emotion, and inspiration. Turner and his fellow slaves suffer tremendous injustice at the hands of rapacious slave owners; his heroic leadership emerges inevitably from his birthright, but only after a revelation that lets him shake his own complacency; his righteous self-sacrifice transcends the brutality of the moment, and ensures a legacy of emancipation. He is a Jesus-like figure chosen from birth to help lead his people from physical and spiritual bondage, and he does not disappointment.
Although there is plenty of violence in The Birth of a Nation, the movie is surprisingly conservative (sometimes even thoughtless) in its depiction and consideration of said brutality. The rape of black women by white men plays an important role in the narrative, and yet Parker offers little reflection on these moments other than that they are painful for the women who suffer it and emasculating for the men who love them. 12 Years a Slave, which also explored the relationship between slavery and sexual violence, brought an honesty and intense psychological realism to each scene of sexual abuse. That movie challenge the audience to grapple with rape as a vicious exertion of power, and therefore a terrifying technique of subjugation and control, as opposed to simply non-consensual sex.
A first time filmmaker, Parker is eager to imbue each frame of The Birth of a Nation with symbolic resonance: an ear of corn overflowing with blood, an iridescent butterfly on the breast of a lynched black body. Much like the narrative arc of Nat Turner himself, this penchant for sudden, miraculous and sorrowful images seems to be of a piece with a reverence for biblical storytelling.
And yet, Parker lacks the patience and compositional eye to give these images the richness to convey multiple meanings at once, let alone the power to stick with an audience after they have left the theater. One need only look at a single, extended long shot from 12 Years a Slave, of Solomon Northup half-lynched and struggling as life passes as usual around him on the plantation, to understand all of the horror made mundane under slavery.
With all of that said, I do think it is important (or, at least, inevitable) to bring some of the Nate Parker story and some of the history of racism in Hollywood to the theater with you when you watch The Birth of a Nation. Just as a movie is a self-contained work of art that can be judged on its own, it is also a product of a specific historical-cultural moment as well as of a specific group of creative people. Just as the 1915 The Birth of a Nation came at a time of nostalgia for the genteel white privilege of the antebellum South, with many white Americans yearning for reconciliation between the North and the South at the expense of truly grappling with the horrid racism perpetrated against African-Americans throughout American history, the 2016 The Birth of a Nation comes at a time when Americans of all different types are acutely aware of the persistence of racial discrimination as well as the oft-overlooked silencing of women who have been victims of sexual assault. This movie is a mediocre though promising work of cinema, but it has also come out right at a time when its themes and its history are not just relevant, but critical for everyone in this country to think about. And as a piece of that conversation alone, I am glad this movie is getting all of the attention it has been getting, extra-textual or not.