Revelations about writer-director Nate Parker’s past sexual assault trial (he was acquitted, the woman involved committed suicide years later) have overshadowed The Birth of a Nation ahead of its release. The controversy raises again — as with discussions of the works of Bill Cosby and Woody Allen — how much an audience can and should separate the unsavory acts (alleged or confirmed) of an artist from the significant art that he or she has created.
If Birth of a Nation were as groundbreaking as its ambitions are high, it might be worth the trouble of that conversation. As is, Parker’s would-be opus about the short-lived and bloody Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 only presents a muddled story of the horrors to which African-Americans were subjected in the antebellum South.
The title — which Parker has said he settled on before even writing the screenplay — is an intentional reference to D.W. Griffith’s famously innovative (and famously racist) 1915 silent film of the same name, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
Parker sets up Turner (played by Parker himself) as a hero who rose up against injustice after years of suffering alongside family and friends under white oppression. The many scenes detailing the violent treatment of blacks do plenty to justify why Parker and his fellow slaves slaughter dozens of whites using axes, hatchets, and knives.
But we’ve seen such suffering depicted with greater depth and nuance in Roots or 12 Years a Slave, and we’ve even seen a satisfying tale of revenge against sadistic masters better executed in Django Unchained.
Turner is an intriguing figure, but all the other characters are wildly inconsistent (like relatively compassionate slave owner Samuel Turner, who takes a poorly explained sharp turn into cruelty) or frustratingly underdeveloped (like Nat Turner’s wife).
This new Birth of a Nation fails in its transparently strained attempts to attribute lasting importance to Nat Turner’s actions. Parker doesn’t shy away from his hagiographic purpose, underlining (with exclamation points) his view of Turner as a Christ-like figure. He seems to have convinced himself that this truth is self-evident. A more skilled filmmaker might have made a stronger, better-articulated argument.