The Squandered Importance of “The Birth of a Nation”

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

Written by Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin
Directed by Nate Parker
USA, 2016

This review was originally posted at USC Annenberg Media. You can find it here.

Nate Parker‘s film, “The Birth of a Nation,” has finally arrived for all to see. It’s a movie that has been spoken about more than seen over the last few months. A hit at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the film received a standing ovation before it had even started. Fox Searchlight Pictures paid $17.5 million to distribute the film, an unheard of sum for a Sundance film. The movie’s pre-screening ovation is telling—”The Birth of a Nation” was freighted with expectations, particularly as it emerged amid renewed conversations about Hollywood’s lack of diversity and the daily discrimination facing African Americans. The subject of Parker’s film, Nat Turner, was a man who used radical measures to try to free himself and his compatriots from the bonds of slavery. “The Birth of a Nation” is often stirring and compelling at times, but too often filled with half-steps and missteps.

Much of the film’s coverage has focused on rape accusations against Parker: in 1999, Nate Parker and his cowriter on the film, Jean McGianni Celestin, were accused of raping a female student at Penn State. Parker was acquitted of the crime; Celestin was convicted, but successfully appealed and was not brought to trial again. The accuser said that Parker and Celestin harassed her following the accusations. She suffered from depression throughout the rest of her life and committed suicide in 2012.

Accusations have abounded regarding the timing of the resurgence of Parker’s rape charges—that they were the result of a whisper campaign to destroy Parker and his film just as it was about to be released. In reality, there was no such conspiracy; the rape charges have been listed on Parker’s Wikipedia page since the day it was created. It was just a matter of time until someone decided to ask Parker about the controversy. As someone so intrinsically involved with the production of the film, Parker’s history cannot be divorced from the film. Our knowledge of the charges colors his choices in portraying the life of Nat Turner, even if we insist that they should not.

“The Birth of a Nation” first introduces Nat Turner as a child (Tony Espinosa). He has a distinctive set of marks on his chest that lead some of the slaves who are still conversant with their African religions to bless him and deem him a holy person. Despite this auspicious opening, Turner’s childhood seems ordinary—he plays hide and seek with his master’s son like any child might. But there’s also a deep curiosity in Turner that leads him to try to teach himself to read. When the master’s wife, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) realizes that Nat is trying to read, she decides to teach him, but only from the Bible—no other book is considered appropriate for a slave. Parker and Celestin’s characterization of Elizabeth is subtle, if underdeveloped. They avoid the kindly slave owner cliché, but also acknowledge that a slave owner might have moments of kindness mixed with toxic racism and condescension.

Elizabeth’s affection for Nat keeps him out of the fields, but he still experiences the constant threat of violence hovering over every slave’s head. After Nat’s father, Isaac (Dwight Henry), sneaks out one night, he is caught by a group of armed white men on horseback, led by Raymond Cobb (the always-villainous Jackie Earle Hailey). Isaac manages to kill one of the men and wound Cobb before he runs away. When Cobb interrogates Nat’s family about his father, he hits Nat’s mother and threatens the child as well. Nat just stares directly into his eyes. Besides introducing Nat to the violence being perpetrated on black people, the sequence is remarkable because of how effectively it deconstructs the insidious myths about slavery that have been allowed to fester among Americans. The armed men challenge the lazy assumption that slavery was merely an economic matter; in reality, it was about suppressing people of color to preserve the dominant position of white people. The armed men who capture Isaac plan to kill him when they determine that he has lied to them, but if these economic motives were true, they would have returned Isaac to his master and alerted him to his escape. Their plan to kill Isaac belies their hatred of African Americans. Their goal is also to terrorize and exterminate them, not merely to use the forced labor of African Americans for economic gain.

Although Turner has been allowed to avoid manual labor because of Elizabeth’s affections, when the master dies, he orders that Nat be put to work in his will. He begins the backbreaking work of picking cotton. Years later, Nat (now played by Parker) alternates between manual labor and serving as a preacher to the slaves. His master is now his old childhood friend, Sam (Armie Hammer, wearing an inexplicable set of false teeth). Sam has some affection for Nat and gives him a certain amount of leeway, such as allowing Nat to accompany him on trips, but he no longer thinks of him as an equal. While visiting a slave auction, Nat convinces Sam to purchase a woman named Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Nat eventually marries her, and much of the criticism written about the film suggests that he picks her because he’s attracted to her (Vinson Cunningham at “The New Yorker” glibly referred to the scene as a “meet-cute“), but it’s more a matter of sympathy than anything else. The auctioneer insinuates that whoever purchases her will be able to rape her, and Nat sees approving faces and a barely-concealed erection as he scans the crowd. Even though Nat chooses her out of sympathy, the film begins to enter troubled water around its depictions of women.

For a man who was once charged with rape, Parker might have been more concerned with questions of consent in his film. Nat announces his love for Cherry by embracing and kissing her completely unannounced. She’s receptive to his actions, but it’s still hard to divorce Parker’s past from his character’s actions, even if they seem benign by historical standards. But later in the film, Cherry will be brutally gang-raped by the same group of white men who went after Nat’s father. Another woman, the wife of a slave sympathetic to Nat’s cause, will also be raped (she’s given no dialogue throughout the film). It’s inaccurate to say that these events alone motivate Turner’s rebellion, as there are later events that push him over the edge, but the sexual violence perpetuated against the women certainly fuels his rage. Both rapes are not shown on screen—instead, we see their impact in the eyes of the men married to these women. It’s an unfortunate choice, a moment of narcissism that threatens the sympathy that Parker and Celestin have built up for Turner.

The biggest motivation for Turner’s rebellion has to do with his faith. Because Sam’s farm has fallen on hard times, he rents Nat out to nearby plantations to give sermons preaching obedience and an afterlife for those who do as they’re told in the current life. Religion (specifically Christianity) was one of the tools used by slave owners to prevent slaves from rebelling. “The Birth of a Nation” is a needed corrective on the subject; it shows preachers picking and choosing Bible verses to support pro-slavery arguments, and makes it explicit that the introduction of Christianity to slaves was not about saving their souls, but rather to make them work harder in hopes of eventually going to heaven. But even as Parker deconstructs the use of religion among slave owners, he fails to truly understand Turner’s own relation to religion. Turner has visions that seem to point to an older African religion, but there’s no sense of how he integrates that with Christianity. Turner was also a man driven by visions and fanaticism, but Parker downplays this aspect of his personality. If Turner’s cause is just, then it is just no matter how extreme his visions are. By downplaying them, Parker does a disservice to Turner.

While sermonizing at a plantation, Turner observes a horrifically violent episode of a slave being force fed with a hammer and a funnel. It’s a brutal and effective moment, one that avoids looking away from the horrors and violence of slavery, unlike so many other films on the subject. But Parker can’t seem to sustain that moral judgment. In addition to not showing the everyday sexual violence perpetuated by white men, Parker chooses not to show Nat’s own whipping. He also sanitizes the deaths of the slaves during the rebellion in a generic battle scene. But most importantly, he refuses to show the scope of Turner’s brutality. So as to avoid making too much noise, the group of slaves hacked up nearby white people with knives and axes. The rebelling slaves didn’t just kill the men in charge, but also women and children. One woman is shown being killed in bed with her husband, but no other women or children are shown being killed. Parker’s attempts to remove Turner’s historical complications rob us of the ability to see a mortal man fighting a grave injustice. The world’s greatest evils have been fought by deeply flawed people, but we don’t get that sense when Turner is presented as a Christ-like figure.

“The Birth of a Nation” is ultimately frustrating because of its compromises. From the moment we see the film’s name on screen, it’s clear that Parker is fighting against the legacy of D. W. Griffith’s great and deplorable film of the same name. But Parker’s resolve is weakened when it comes to his depiction of the lead character. Nat Turner is a historical figure free of the effects of respectability politics; Parker’s great failure is in trying to turn the man into a saint. Even with its faults, “The Birth of a Nation” will bring many viewers to tears. But the film could have been as emotionally resonant even without sanitizing Turner, or selectively ignoring the violence of slavery, or using a sweeping score that manipulates emotions. “The Birth of a Nation” is too good a film to be ignored out of hand. But its strengths also make its failures so much more painful.

Watch the trailer below:

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