A rousing historical epic in the mold of "Braveheart," "The Birth of a Nation" tells the story of Nat Turner, tracing his path from a righteous man of God to fiery instrument of God's fury as the leader of a bloody 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. Taught to read from the Bible as a child by his master's wife, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), Nat goes on to become a preacher. Once he's older, he's loaned out by his childhood friend turned owner, Samuel (Armie Hammer), to other plantation owners, preaching on the benefits of docility and keeping his fellow slaves in line.
While in the beginning, Samuel relatively treats Nat well, eventually he becomes consumed with the desire to return his family's plantation to its former glory. The film makes it clear that when a person is given such power over another human being, it's only a matter of time before they succumb to their worst impulses.
Nat's travels force him to witness the horrors being carried out against his people, solidifying his resolve to stage the brutal uprising which resulted in the deaths of somewhere between 55 to 65 white men, women, and children. The film is vague about how Turner reconciled his faith with his later actions, but it's clear he saw the violence as necessary to purge society of the sin of slavery -- although the rebellion also led white militias and mobs to murder upwards of 200 black people in retaliation.
When it premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "The Birth of a Nation" seemed to be the corrective to last year's #OscarsSoWhite controversy. A passion project from Nate Parker ("Beyond the Lights"), the actor spent seven years fighting to get the film made, acting as producer, writer, director, and star. His efforts paid off when the film sold for a record-setting $17.5 million before going on to win the festival's Grand Jury and Audience awards. The film was destined for Oscar glory.
But the narrative surrounding the film has shifted drastically in the intervening months, after the media rediscovered the deeply troubling rape allegations against Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin when the two were students at Penn State University back in 1999. Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was initially convicted and the sentence later overturned. But the case, its subsequent harassment suit, and the plaintiff's suicide in 2012 now dominate any discussion of Parker's film.
Stories like this ask us to consider how much we're willing to overlook for the sake of art. Here, the stark distinction between a work and the artist who created it is the clear tactic taken by the makers of the film, reiterated again and again during a tense press conference (which I attended) following the film's debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. But keeping art and artist separate is often easier said than done. Further muddying the waters is Parker and Celestin's decision to add a sexual assault against Turner's eventual wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), that serves to further motivate the preacher toward action.
Being an artist and putting a work out into the world opens you up to a certain level of scrutiny. As in most cases, it's not a question of whether an artist should be allowed to continue to make art at all (no one seems to deny them that much), but whether they should be celebrated for it, showered with millions of dollars, or awarded glory. It's a difficult question that doesn't have a clear answer. The allegations shouldn't be swept under the rug, but whether or not knowing those facts impacts your decision to see the film is in the end a completely personal decision, and up to the individual.
Still all of this debate leaves out any talk about the quality of the film itself, which in the end is a fairly by-the-numbers prestige historical drama. I respect Nate Parker's commitment to bringing it to the screen; as far as first films go, it's about as ambitious as one can get. But Parker is much stronger as an actor than a director: his central performance is terrific. His direction however, is significantly less confident. It often comes across as the work of a novice filmmaker, heavy-handed and literal-minded -- Nina Simone's rendition of "Strange Fruit" accompanies the image of lynched slaves, and there's plenty of Jesus imagery, like Turner being literally touched by an angel. It too often falls into awards-bait clichés.
Nat Turner's story is one that undoubtedly deserves to be told, and the film joins "12 Years a Slave" and "Selma" as one of the rare filmed chapters of black history to be told by black artists themselves. But at the same time, I can't help but wish Hollywood would see that slave narratives aren't the only black stories worth telling or given the mark of "importance." Just this year, we've gotten wonderful films like "The Fits," "Queen of Katwe," "Southside With You," and the brilliant "Moonlight" (opening here in November), leaving no question that there's plenty of other stories just as worthy of Hollywood's (and audiences') attention.
Visit rochestercitynewspaper.com on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of "The Dressmaker."