So much fuss has been kicked up over The Birth of a Nation since it premiered at Sundance in January and was bought there for a record sum and laden with the hope that its story about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831 might be seen as some kind of corrective to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy (among other racial injustices), to the recent revelations of creator Nate Parker’s past involvement as one of two defendants in a rape trial, a crime for which he was judged innocent, yet as recently as last Sunday in a 60 Minutes interview, still sees no reason for apology. The film has played at subsequent festivals to standing ovations, and has also met with loud scorn from those who choose not to see the film because of what they view as its director’s moral lapse. If we can, we need to shove all the chatter aside and look at the merits of this film impartially before it is inevitably turned into this season’s cultural football.
Parker makes his feature directing debut with The Birth of a Nation and also stars in the film as Nat Turner, in addition to writing the screenplay (based on a story he developed with his college roommate and co-defendant Jean McGianni Celestin). A longtime labor of love, Parker’s film is one of the most impressive directing debuts seen of late, although that does not mean it is without flaws. Parker’s research and sense of historical detail comes through magnificently, and in this he is immensely aided by Geoffrey Kirkland’s production design and Elliot Davis’ widescreen cinematography. Yet from the opening moments, in which young Nat (Espinosa, playing Nat as a child) is declared to be a future prophet, it’s clear that very little nuance or subtlety will be found in the screenplay. And, should you miss a dramatic cue, you can count on prompts from Henry Jackman’s grandly swelling and ever-present music score to fill in any blanks. The film’s pacing can also be awkward: It takes a long time for the preacher/slave Nat Turner’s mild ire to turn to anger and then full-on insurrection. The build-up to the climax is dramatically uneven. Turner’s rebellion lasted only 48 hours, and occupies only the climactic last quarter of the two-hour movie, at which point it adopts the tone of a war film. The denouement leaves no time for Parker’s incarceration or the aftermath caused by his actions, although the film includes his death scene and a written postscript before the closing credits. And while Birth leaves no question about the horrors of slavery, Parker indicates that Turner’s uprising stems more from his discovery of the Bible’s duplicity and that conflicting passages can be used to justify virtually anything. More on the role of religion in Turner’s reasoning would have been welcome.
There are images, however, in The Birth of a Nation that are so potent, disturbing, and visually precise that they will be seared into my memory for life. That’s no small accomplishment. Parker’s reclamation of the title of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist but cinematic milestone is a bold move, as well, marking a new century and fresh look into our nation’s past – and future. The Birth of a Nation most definitely has its finger on the pulse of our times.
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