Movies, and sometimes the people who make them, work on us at strange, subterranean levels we can’t even begin to comprehend. That’s why, even though relatively few people have seen it, few know quite how to feel about Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, which premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday to a rousing response from the audience, some seven months after its sensational Sundance unveiling. Parker’s debut picture—about Nat Turner, the enslaved African American who led a violent revolt against slave owners in 1831—is distinctive for one notable reason: Movies about the history of blacks in this country are rarely made, and if you rule out the usual suspects like Spike Lee and Lee Daniels—and count back to the days before 12 Years a Slave and Selma—they have rarely been made by people of color. But months ahead of its release in the United States, in October, The Birth of a Nation has also become infamous for a thornier reason: In 1999, while they were students at Penn State University, Parker and his roommate and wrestling teammate Jean Celestin—cowriter of The Birth of a Nation—were accused of raping a fellow student. Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty, though the verdict was overturned. Their accuser committed suicide in 2012. In the context of this terrible blot, should Parker be lauded as a filmmaker? Should people show tacit support of him and his actions by seeing the film? Is his work, or his view on anything, in any way trustworthy?
Anyone who believes he or she will find true gratification in refusing to buy a ticket to The Birth of a Nation should probably stay away. But this sort of punishment by refusal can’t rewrite the past, and it suggests that closing ourselves off from a movie is a bold way to engage with the world, when in fact, it’s the opposite. The Birth of a Nation isn’t a great movie—it’s hardly even a good one. But it’s bluntly effective, less a monumental piece of filmmaking than an open door. Parker stars as Nat Turner, and his performance is grounded and thoughtful—he may be a better actor than he is as a director. The Birth of a Nation works best when its story is told most simply, without too many strained poetic images—at one point, after a devastating event, Parker’s camera closes in on an ear of corn that begins seeping blood, an unnecessary blast of symbolism that tells us nothing, other than that a beginning filmmaker is being a showoff.
But there are discrete moments in The Birth of a Nation that speak to all sorts of things we “know” as Americans, but in an elemental way that makes us see them anew. We watch a group of well wishers surround bride and groom Hark and Esther (Colman Domingo and Gabrielle Union), their overwhelming warmth the essence of community. Later, Esther will be dragged away to provide a night’s entertainment for a white man—though for us, as viewers, the real horror is the aftermath, when she emerges from the plantation house in her nightgown, her face showing an inability to process the horror of what she’s just experienced, as her husband opens his arms to her.
The Birth of a Nation is also unafraid to touch on some of the complexities of the slave-owner relationship: Nat Turner’s owners, Samuel and Elizabeth Turner (Armie Hamnmer and Penelope Ann Miller), are benevolent, to a point. It’s Elizabeth who helps Nat, as a child, develop his reading skills—he’ll later become a preacher. And although Samuel generally treats him well (for a time, at least), this white man in a position of power, hoping to restore his somewhat shabby plantation and family name to its former glory, has no compunction about pimping out Turner’s ace preaching skills to neighboring property owners who want to keep their slaves in line. These men assume that hearing the word of God will make their slaves more compliant. What really happens is that Nat, when he sees how badly other slaves are treated—the horrors mount incrementally but forcefully—decides it’s necessary to take violent action.
The Birth of a Nation is a hard movie to either praise or damn: Parker isn’t a particularly graceful or skillful filmmaker, but he knows what emotional notes to hit for maximum effect. (In that respect, he’s not so different from the man who made that other Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith.) It’s hard for anyone to get a decently funded movie made these days, and yet somehow, in any given year there’s never any shortage of movies made by and/or about straight white dudes anguished over their own insecurities. A few of those are fine. But why not tell some new stories for a change? And stories about the African American experience—stories whose casting would presumably expand the options for actors of color—are as good a place as any to start. Should this Birth of a Nation exist? Should people see it? Is it OK if people respond to it? If we care at all about who, beyond white guys, ought to be making movies in America, the answer to all is “yes.” It’s the difference between stepping through an open door or standing off bullishly to the side, wishing someone else had opened it.
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