The Difficulty and Selfishness of The Birth of a Nation

Where do we begin?

It seems as though we can begin no discussion on The Birth of a Nation, the firebrand biopic of the revolutionary slave Nat Turner written and directed and starring Nate Parker, without discussing both the film and how we choose to discuss it. I am, however, a white male critic. There is a host of intricate interlocking intersectionalities that I can never fully comprehend, and that I will cede the discussion to others. I interpret the film and its filmmaking as I can, and I stand by what I will say. I encourage you to seek out other voices, and let mine be one.

But at the end of the day, here are the facts leading in. The Birth of a Nation made its debut in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, another year of the Oscars ignoring or marginalizing filmmakers and artists of color. Parker promised a bold voice to break through those barriers, and before the film started rolling, Parker had already received a standing ovation. Fox Searchlight picked up the movie for $17.5 million, one of the largest Sundance pickups ever, and it was poised to become the Best Picture home run, all centered around an Oscar campaign holding up Parker as the next great artist. The critics raved, with but a few expressing discontent, drowned out by the universal praise.

Then in August, the entertainment media brought up the skeleton lurking in Parker’s closet. A rape case in college where he was acquitted and his friend Jean Celestin (the film’s co-writer, by the by) had his case overturned. In 2000, his accuser committed suicide. Parker’s attempted apology tour went poorly for him, often failing to answer or show convincing remorse, a situation that got worse when a fairly damning phone transcript came out from the trial.

Which leads us here. A potentially powerful film by a new voice that began to drown under the weight of his past. Espousing separation of the art and artist is easy, as is espousing not seeing the film to not support someone who’s committed a heinous act.

Separating the art and the artist is easier said than done. Woody Allen may still be a brilliant writer and director, but it’s hard to grapple with Manhattan when he writes himself in a relationship with an underage girl.

And it’s important to remember that Hollywood always takes the wrong lesson. Hollywood isn’t looking for proof that we don’t want to support rapists and the crooked, they don’t believe that. They also don’t believe that we as an audience want to support filmmakers of color, and they’re chomping at the bit to find evidence.

So, that leads to the decision I made. Because ultimately, your decision is your own. Supporting this man and this film or not is up to you. I chose to see it and wrestle with it in public, because we have to. Difficult art is as important as easy art, understanding the world as it exists is as important as trying to act upon a world as we want it to be.

I chose to wrestle with difficult art. On the other hand, it’s a shame that we have to have this difficult conversation with a film like this. Difficult art is not great art…and The Birth of a Nation is not great art.

On the contrary, The Birth of a Nation is a deeply selfish film, perpetrating on the audience the con of competence in order to make it buy the single idea that Nate Parker is a filmmaker and artist much greater than he is.

Ostensibly, this is a story of Nat Turner (Parker), a slave in Virginia marked early in his life as a prophet and a preacher. Living on the Turner Plantation, he’s taught to read the Bible at a young age by the family’s matriarch (Penelope Ann Miller). In adulthood, under Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), Nat is rented out for his preaching abilities, using the Gospel to keep slaves down. From this vantage point, he’s able to see the horrors of slavery, which pushes him towards prophetic visions of rising up against the slave-owners.

That vantage point is the choice that rubs me the wrong way. There are other stories, those of the slave-owners and that of Nat and his wife Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King). All of it is filled with increasing horror and all of it is told to us through Nat Turner’s point of view. We never leave Nat’s eyes, and the way he sees the horrors of slavery, seemingly as if it was all new. The film is always about how Nat feels and reacts, including two sexual assaults, one a gang rape on Cherry Ann and another on a slave girl named Esther (Gabrielle Union). These rapes are told less through what it means to these, and more in what it incites within Nat.

Which might be interesting if Nat himself was an interesting character. But Parker has sanded his edges off and turned him into an unabashed hero and an uncomplicated man. None of his fervor is anything you couldn’t find in your local church, his apocalyptic visions turned into a few dreams. Parker is so scared in this film that you might not like Nat, and by extension not like him, that he’s made Nat a dry symbol rather than a historical figure. He’s a gentle soul or a firebrand warrior, never allowed to in between. More superhero myth that Parker strains constantly to make, letting the music swell as he rises up from his whipping to make the decision to visit God’s wrath on the wicked, than actual man who can impart a historical lesson.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Sometimes we need a mythos, a figure who comes up against the forces of our world. But not here. We’re too close to the real world, and there’s too much selfishness in that role. Look at a film like Selma. Selma, Ava Duvernay, and David Oyelowo were all willing to turn Martin Luther King, Jr. into a complex figure, with faults and pragmatism, who ultimately rose above and turned into myth through what he did. Nat is never given the chance to become a real person, so concerned is Parker with avoiding any chance of complicating his moment.

Selma was also willing to show the nitty gritty of its historical narrative, to let the story play out, and let it play out with subtlety. A powerful film that felt no need to underline. On the other hand, at every point The Birth of a Nation must underline. Every act as brutal as it can be, and it makes sure to revisit all of those moments. It must punctuate and scream in your face that you get what’s trying to be done. After all, you must understand that Parker is a genius. It’s a remarkably unsubtle film, much to its detriment.

That lack of subtlety screams loudly The Birth of a Nation’s biggest weakness. The filmmaking is not at all good. It reminds me of Tom Hooper, capable of beauty like a portrait, and the occasional striking image and composition, but so much is amateurish. Dull and clunky, moving from scene to scene without purpose. When it’s about to start to flow, it trips over itself. There’s a good moment or two, a particularly strong scene where Nat prays at a party for his Master that’s loaded with double meaning and hints at what this film could have been. But The Birth of a Nation is a clumsy affair, trying its best to make a point without the ability to actually do so.

Without a point, what can this film really do? I couldn’t help thinking about 12 Years a Slave, a film that depicted its slavery narrative in a remarkably similar way with a similar brutality and underlying idea. The grace and power 12 Years a Slave was capable of shows the difference in filmmaking ability and what good directing is able to do. There’s no image in The Birth of a Nation more powerful than Solomon Northrup dangling from a tree with his feet just out of reach. I still think about that moment and I haven’t seen the movie in three years.

What The Birth of a Nation has without a unique slavery narrative is its focus on religion and its final rebellion. Turner’s faith is poorly explored, largely just a narrative glue and lip service to the idea of exegesis. The rebellion is perhaps the only singularly evocative moment of the film, but it all rests on how much you’ve attached to Nat and his perspective. Perhaps if Nat had been allowed to have nuance and been allowed to make the audience feel the weight of the decision he ultimately made, that final rebellion might uniquely mean something.

I’ve said a lot, and I suppose much of it comes out of a feeling of betrayal, a feeling that this film had for so long pulled one over on me and the rest of the film world. There’s some reasonably strong visual images and solid performances. But there’s so much that rubs up against me and pits me against the film that makes it hard to appreciate The Birth of a Nation.

I want to support a filmmaker of color and an untold story of black history. If I came close to getting what the film was doing, it’s the final title card when The Birth of a Nation tells us that Nat Turner was executed, flayed, and ground up so that he would have any trace of a possible legacy stricken from the Earth. And here I sat with his legacy being told on screen.

I want to support that. But I can’t pretend that this film is well-made, and I can’t pretend that this film of activism is an actual activist work. I sat for two hours believing solely that this film was made on the backs of a cause to prop up Nate Parker as an artist. It’s a deeply selfish film, and there’s so much to support this year and early next. Films like Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures, The Fits, Kicks, Queen of Katwe, or Get Out. Yes, we need to wrestle with artists and works like this. But even more, we need to hold up those who aren’t so complicated, and hold up those that are better.

There won’t be a grade here. I don’t feel comfortable giving one. The Birth of a Nation is a film I still wrestle with, and I don’t know when I’ll stop.

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