I wanted to review this alongside Ava DuVernay’s ’13th’ (https://cinefalcon.com/2016/10/10/13th/) because that film elegantly illustrates the connection between this film’s namesake – D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915) – and the legal impediments to the rights of the African-American community that followed.
Griffith’s infamous propaganda film glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and casts them as heroes battling legions of black criminals (played by white men in blackface). In his screenwriting and directing debut, Nate Parker retells the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, creating a narrative which examines and reverses the 1915 title’s meaning.
As a child, Nat (played as an adult by Parker) is taught to read, a rare thing for any slave. But he is told that any books besides the Bible are “filled with things [his] kind wouldn’t understand.” As a result, Nat matures to become a preacher for his fellow slaves.
The white owners of the plantation Nat lives on actually treat their slaves relatively well compared to the surrounding plantations. He sees this when his young master, Samuel (Armie Hammer), arranges to have him tour the surrounding area and preach to other slaves.
Chicago-based film critic Josh Larsen describes the film as a “dramatic act of Biblical exegesis.” That, I think, is winningly accurate. As Nat becomes angrier, his scriptural selections become more and more about rising up and rebellion.
Initially, he caves to the unspoken pressure to preach an ‘obey your masters’ doctrine. But after witnessing horror upon horror committed against slaves, eventually including his wife (Aja Naomi King), Nat decides it is time to mix his sermons with righteous spite.
When Nat openly disputes a white man’s interpretation of scripture, Samuel, with whom he had a Moses-and-Aaron type of relationship growing up, finally gives in to the pressures surrounding him and whips his childhood friend. This is a particularly effective scene because it signifies the complete unraveling of their uneasy friendship and reveals how rooted in scripture the film’s inner conflict is.
Now, as well-acted and well-directed as the film appears to me, I would be totally remiss if I did not mention the controversies surrounding its release. One charge levied against it is the fact that it does not depict the entirety of the rebellion, in which Turner and his comrades killed not only white men, but also women and children. Perhaps naively, but for the sake of creating a palatable film, I’ll let that slide.
What I can’t let slide is the invention of rapes which did not actually occur. Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin were charged with rape in 1999, resulting in an acquittal for Parker in 2001 and an eventual overturned conviction for Celestin. The victim committed suicide in 2012.
The film depicts two brutal rapes, and while the scenes are actually quite conservative in terms of content, there is no excuse for rewriting history in this way, especially when one is outrunning those kinds of charges.
The story of how the film’s awards-season chances will be affected by this has yet to be written, but Parker’s reticence to apologize (see the recent ‘60 Minutes’ interview) definitely injures his Oscar hopes. And make no mistake: if the charge against Parker did not exist, or perhaps if he had cut the rape scenes, this movie would be the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, and that would be a bet I’d make.
I’d bet on it because it subtly and precisely observes the emotional lives of slaves and slaveholders. I’d bet on it because the fine, layered performances of Armie Hammer and Aja Naomi King deserve to be recognized. And I’d bet on it because in a post-‘Oscars So White’ landscape, it’s a film important enough to be remembered and revered for its overall bravery and sensitivity.
Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. The film will always live in the uncertain shadow of the director’s past, quite like the films of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. And it deserves to live there because of the invented scenes of rape. Again, those are inexcusable, and they make for an incredibly problematic viewing experience.
On the one hand, the majority of the film is masterfully crafted and I truly think it should be seen by all Americans due to its subject matter. On the other hand, it forces the informed viewer to draw a heavy line between art and artist. If you’re comfortable drawing that line, it’s definitely worth watching.
‘The Birth of a Nation’ (2016) = B
‘The Birth of a Nation’ is rated R for disturbing violent content and some brief nudity.