I saw The Birth of a Nation at Sundance in late January, seven months before the controversy over writer/director/star Nate Parker’s 1999 rape trial and the tragic revelation about his accuser’s 2012 suicide dominated all talk of his biopic of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, a preacher who saw visions that inspired him to revolt — and, depending on which historian you ask, either made plantation life worse or planted a seed that would, a generation later, blossom into the Civil War.
I didn’t like the movie then — my festival wrap-up called it a “ham-fisted throwback” — and, having re-watched it this week, I still don’t. The difference is that now it’s more acceptable to say so, which feels unfair, as the movie has improved. For one thing, distributor Fox Searchlight seems to have color-corrected the night scenes in the forests surrounding Turner’s Virginia shack, which no longer look like they were shot through blueberry Jell-O. Parker’s original look was so cruddy you half expected his camera to reveal a killer in a hockey mask. The studio can’t do much to fix the rest, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The Birth of a Nation premiered 11 days after the 88th Academy Awards nominated only white actors for the second year in a row. Hollywood wanted hope, or, honestly, at least a quick fix. Before the film even started, Parker got a standing ovation. Afterward, he got an even longer one, and in the emotional frenzy, Fox Searchlight snatched it for a staggering $17.5 million, the most expensive purchase in Sundance history. In 2012, Fox Searchlight won three Oscars with 12 Years a Slave. They must have felt sure they were buying gold statues.
Now, Parker’s gone from hero to pariah, and The Birth of a Nation has become a lightning rod for our national conversation about sexual assault, race, and gender. But we’ve been talking about Parker — not what’s on-screen. So, let’s be fair to the film. Let’s cross-examine its skill and soul while agreeing upfront that while slavery is inarguably wrong, films about slavery — like any movie — can be good, bad, thrilling, dull, manipulative, and powerful, sometimes even in the same scene. It can have goals it’s not able to meet. A movie is as complex as a person. It has to be. It takes hundreds of people to make one, each making hundreds of decisions a day. “I do think it’s important to recognize that no one person does anything important on their own,” said Parker during a testy press conference at the Toronto Film Festival, pleading with audiences to respect the efforts of the 400 other people in the credits, not boycott the film for being his.
But The Birth of a Nation’s ambitions are muddled. Its title is a slap at D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist masterpiece, which reinvigorated film craft and the KKK. Parker claims it as if to say: You had your American story for a century, old man. Today, it’s mine. Parker remixes the past into his art the way, on The Birth of a Nation’s companion album, 2 Chainz turns the crack of a lash into a drum. “Preach ya today and kill ya tonight,” 2 Chainz snarls — words he imagines Nat Turner using in 2016, when oppression feels like it’s only changed shape.
But you won’t hear that song in the movie. Instead of 2 Chainz, the soundtrack is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a cliché Mel Brooks mocked in Blazing Saddles five years before Parker was born. The boldest thing about The Birth of a Nation is that title, and the graffiti-style posters around town exclaiming, “Nat Turner is alive!” The film itself is another mannered tragedy about Southern life, all scratchy trousers and silver serving trays and people coughing blood into handkerchiefs to let you know they’re about to die, punctuated with brutal violence that winds up being the only thing you remember. Parker isn’t subverting Hollywood; he’s mimicking a formula that works. The only black stories that get Best Picture Oscars are dramas about race: Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years a Slave, Crash. Meanwhile, award-winning white filmmakers can talk about anything they want: scientists, actors, journalists, gladiators, CIA agents, cowboys, and kings.
When the theater lights went down on my second viewing of The Birth of a Nation, I heard the ding of a steel drum, pounded by the holy man who predicts that young Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa) will grow up to be a powerful leader. Then I heard something unexpected: a jolt of electric feedback that sounded like God agreed. I was electrified, too. The modern buzz made Turner’s past sound like America’s present. Then the lights came up — a control booth mistake. The Birth of a Nation began again, this time with the same old crickets and thunderclaps — humid, obvious notes that feel as musty as the moss on the trees.
The irony is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation could easily be a silent film. Watching it, you’d think movies haven’t evolved since D.W. Griffith invented the close-up. The moments are so telegraphed, you could cover your ears and understand every beat. The villains burp and drink and twist their mouths around chewing tobacco like cartoon ne’er-do-wells. When Turner’s childhood friend turned master, Sam (Armie Hammer), finds a new way to make money from him as a traveling preacher whose sermons calm the slaves, his success is told in inserts: two coins, two dollars, then ten. In a slave-auction scene, Parker cuts from a traumatized woman on the for-sale block to an owner adjusting his erection. Later, when Turner marries that woman — a beauty named Cherry (Aja Naomi King) — Parker inserts a bizarrely out-of-place topless scene where the camera glides past King’s nipples to rest on two candles melting into one.
The direction is so heavy-handed that it feels like Parker is afraid audiences don’t know slavery is wrong. Or maybe that truth is all he’s comfortable using Nat Turner to say. Turner is one of the most fascinating figures in our country’s painful legacy, a civil rights crusader who claimed God commanded him to slaughter 60 white men, women, and children. Were his holy visions real? Were they just? The film doesn’t ask. I can’t help wishing that Parker had found inspiration in another silent epic, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, which literally put its heroine on trial for swearing that the Lord ordered her to grab a sword and combat her English oppressors. But Dreyer’s film was banned in Britain, condemned by the archbishop of Paris, and, worse, was a financial flop. Parker won’t risk his standing ovation.
Though Parker was charismatic and charming — the essential qualities of a leader-prophet — in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s must-see Beyond the Lights, here he seems uneasy playing a controversial man. (I can only imagine how he feels being one himself.) Instead, Parker’s Turner specializes in the thousand-yard stare, his eyes focusing offscreen at nothing at all. He only emotes in two dramatic scenes where he sobs and gulps like a newborn getting his first gasp of oxygen. And instead of finding the humanity in Turner, Parker fashions him into a living statue. This isn’t the incendiary Turner who polarizes American history. He’s just another stoic leading man.
The Birth of a Nation lingers on the generic early scenes of Turner learning to read, working the fields, wooing his wife. His politicization is gradual: an unfair switch from a stranger, the nauseating discovery that the Bible — the only book his mistress (Penelope Ann Miller) allows him to touch — commands slaves to obey. (“Those books are for white folks,” she smiles, gesturing at a library of stories she’s decided aren’t for him.) There’s an interesting middle section where Turner realizes that the stanzas he’s been hired to preach no longer work. How can he ask his brothers and sisters to trust in God? He begins choosing new verses, rabble-rousing ones that cause the ears of the enslaved to perk up, though their masters are somehow oblivious.
But Parker fast-forwards through the revolt that makes Turner remembered. Until that moment, The Birth of a Nation has soaked in the full horrors of plantation cruelty: owners chiseling out their slaves’ teeth and force-feeding them; the raw stitches on Turner’s back after a whipping; an unknown runaway, his skull blown off so the audience can shudder at his exposed brain. Yet Turner’s slayings occur offscreen. We glimpse him standing over his victims, and then the lens glances away at the last second, like it’s suddenly decided that murder is uncouth. Even the blood isn’t bright red, the kind Quentin Tarantino uses so that catharsis makes us sick. It’s a tasteful maroon that fades into the shadows, which is where the film itself will go when the Oscar cycle is over, Parker having learned a harsh lesson that awards have to be earned.
Part of the frustration of this year’s Sundance was that the spotlight on The Birth of a Nation eclipsed roles that felt fresh, like Craig Robinson’s German soccer coach in Morris From America, 11-year-old Royalty Hightower’s tomboy dancer in The Fits, or Jacob Latimore’s streetwise magician in Sleight. There are more characters to play than Emaciated Slave No. 1 and Rebel Slave No. 4. What if the way to honor Nat Turner is to pay attention to artists who aren’t shackled by the Academy’s limited definition of what a black Best Picture winner is allowed to discuss? The next wave of black voices deserves the freedom to pick their own books from the shelf.