Unless you’ve been living under a rock that doesn’t have wi-fi, over the past few months you’ve become familiar with the name Nate Parker. His what would be triumphant film reclaiming a title originally soiled by D.W. Griffith and racism now reformed as a bio-pic about Nat Turner has been marred by Parker’s past rape trial. I wrote about my conflicting emotions towards the film once this information surfaced and I want to separate the film from the filmmaker but after seeing The Birth of a Nation that has proven to be quite difficult. When the credits roll the only name you see is Nate Parker as director, writer, story by and producer. This movie is all him. Even if you want to credit the movie as a collaborative effort, it’s hard to. If you don’t think he’s a scumbag for being a rapist, it’s pretty off-putting to realize the amount of ego needed to immortalize Nat Turner as played by you. I’m not against Nat Turner, he rose up against his oppressors and for sure, a lot of those white folk deserved the wrath that was coming to them. What I don’t like is Parker making Turner a deity which undermines the poignancy of his legacy.
The film opens with a trope that I wish could be stricken from all of screenwriting and that is a prophecy. Bestowing a prophecy is an easy way of writing off why everything going forward happens because it was foretold. It makes a character too special. Particularly in Nat Turner’s case, he’s so iconic because he was a typical man who decided not to take it anymore. By beginning with a young Nat standing in a circle of traditional elders in the woods being told the peculiar markings on his chest signify he will be a great leader and destined to change the course of man undercuts all the other character development that leads to his rebellion. As the narrative continues, it depicts all the horrors of slavery from the painstaking labor of picking cotton to the demoralizing nature in which he and his family are addressed by their masters but in the case of this clandestine greatness, his experiences don’t matter because it’s been predicted he’s going to fight back anyway. I’m not demanding for a complicated portrayal of a man like Martin Luther King in Selma where we pull back the curtain on this historical figure but I also don’t need him to be a superhero.
It’s difficult for any other character to shine past the mighty shadow cast by Nat. If you’re like me, when you heard about Gabrielle Union commenting on her costars allegations you went “she’s in this movie!?” because you’d assume an actress with a lengthy career such as her’s would be mentioned in the marketing. Yet my exclamation can be paired with every actor in this movie. Union is essentially a glorified extra (she has no lines) and most of those around Nat feel the same way, they’re there to further his story. The two supporting characters that particularly compel him are his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and his master/childhood friend Samuel (Armie Hammer). The latter produces a more interesting conflict as he has his own inner struggle towards the inhumane treatment of slaves. You have moments where he’ll defend Nat and then other times is reminded that socially he is ranked higher and treats his slave accordingly. It’s the perfect balance of the adopted ignorance of the southern whites willing to turn a blind eye and the self-hate of doing so. Samuel chooses to drink his way through existence than do anything. Cherry is more underserved as a love interest while their initial courtship is quite sweet. It’s a piece of happiness to cleanse the palate between all the instances of brutality but she is eventually raped and that becomes one of his core reasons to act. That depiction which was embellished for the story is in poor taste for Parker notably when Nat sits at Cherry’s bedside as she lies battered and says. “God is going to punish whoever did this.” All the metatextual impediment that goes along with that moment is enough to make you uncomfortable in your seat.
This is a tough film to watch and that is the point. The visuals of the antebellum south aren’t depicted as the heydays of Tara and are graphic and hard to swallow. To judge the film on does it get it’s point across that slavery is bad is very simple. On many media outlets (and I include myself) have commented on whether or not we need another slave movie. Is it necessary to watch another movie about the bloody, inhumane treatment of blacks in America? The answer is yes and no. In reality, there are way fewer slave biographies than you think. Roots, Glory and 12 Years a Slave are such statement pieces that you assume they’re part of an overflowing genre when really they’re their own one-offs. The reason it’s important to have these historical retellings is, and it’s cliche to say, but we shouldn’t forget our past or we’re doomed to repeat it. It’s important in general for white people to stay woke to their checkered past but also because many instances in this film can be mapped onto current day issues. The laymen police force, headed by Jackie Earle Haley, patrols the roads stopping any black for walking unaccompanied and enacting punishment however he pleases. That and all the corpses of innocent people shot and hanged are shades of Trayvon, Brown, Sterling, and countless others. Most of Birth of a Nation’s power comes from how relevant it is. Yet where the frustration for this presumed tired genre comes from the fact that there are very few roles available for black actors and especially if you want Oscar recognition, the impassioned portrayal of a slave is almost a surefire way of getting it. Back in 1939 when Hattie McDaniels won Best Supporting Actress for the role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind she was quoted as saying “I rather play a maid than be one” and that was painfully true for that time. Now that servitude is not the default profession for African-Americans, the public wants to see black roles diversify and if Birth gets nominated it will continue this unprogressive cycle.
What this movie represents in the context of modern cinema and the context of Nate Parker’s life handicaps it from being successful. Never have I encountered a film with such baggage. What would have been decently received Oscar bait is weighted down by bombarding exterior factors. If Parker wasn’t marred by his own volition, I’d say this was a more than competent debut feature but now it’s probably his last. It’s fitting that a controversial man made a film about a controversial figure. As some look at Turner and see a hero or a murderer, people will look at Parker and see a rapist or a filmmaker and in each scenario they’re correct, one just happens to be more justified. Birth will be remembered as a rise and fall story of a movie destined for greatness out of Sundance that found itself collapsing under a society that no longer allows rape to be swept under the rug. Even if Nat Turner didn’t get the movie he deserved, in death he’s furthering social awareness of rape culture. Not a bad addition to your legacy.