Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Directed by: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union
Whenever a film is preceded by controversy, the same question arises: how relevant is this to the film itself? In most cases, one could make the argument that it’s not, that the film and the circumstances of its production are separate. Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders’ affair didn’t seem to affect the response to Snow White and the Huntsman (though perhaps it didn’t need bad publicity to be deemed a bad film); Mel Gibson continues to gain critical notice despite continuing to be a thoroughly unpleasant person.
It’s in this context that one arrives at The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s portrayal of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. As the director, star, producer and writer of the film, Parker’s influence is in every frame of it. But, with the increased scrutiny of awards buzz, he has himself become the controversy, stemming from an acquitted rape charge from 1999, which, judging by his belligerent remarks in promoting the film, Parker doesn’t really grasp the significance of. The closest to remorse he has come is to say that from the perspective of a ‘36-year-old man’, it was morally wrong. So it’s once again that question: is this relevant? The problem is that, with Birth, it most certainly is, because the film becomes as much about Nate as it is about Nat.
Sure, it’s ‘based on the true story’ of Nat Turner, as we’re told at the start. But Parker takes huge liberties with that true story, all the while insisting the audience sit through every unrelentingly bleak minute. We watch Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), once Nat’s childhood friend, turn into his pimping, drunkard, evil owner. We see Cherry (Aja Naomi King), future wife of Nat, raped by a gang of white slave catchers. We see Esther (Gabrielle Union) ‘requested’ by another slave owner, before the camera focuses on the reaction of her husband, Hark (Colman Domingo), while he waits for her return outside. And we hear of the ‘hundreds’ of slaves lynched in the aftermath of Turner’s Rebellion.The problem is that absolutely none of these events actually happened, yet they all form fundamental parts of the narrative, to the point where Turner’s revolt is portrayed as catalysed by Samuel’s demeanour, and by the rape of his wife Cherry. For the real Turner, slavery was catalyst enough for his rebellion. For Parker’s Turner though, it is not enough, and he creates a new context. His own context.
Which is why the controversy is relevant. If we can’t trust Parker to adhere to reality, then the film becomes a vehicle for Parker’s modern commentary. The commentary of the man who in addition to the aforementioned description, refuses to play gay characters, as it would be ‘emasculating’. The fabrication also feels like a betrayal of the very characters it portrays, as if the brutality that did occur wasn’t deemed enough, so instead, we are shown brutality that certainly did happen, just not as part of the story of the Rebellion. The film is emotionally powerful throughout, but how much of that is the fiction, and how much is the fact?
Despite these unforgivable issues, there are elements that are positive. Once you appreciate that he is playing a character, not Turner, Parker’s acting performance is solid, in contrast to his other roles on the film. As he tours plantations on the pay of slave owners, to preach to the slaves that they should ‘respect their masters’, Parker captures the internal conflict of a man using his own heartfelt faith to oppress other slaves further. It is a subtle doublethink, his vocal tone and his body language in favour of his words, while only his eyes reveal the truth. Elsewhere, the rest of the cast is equally strong, despite their insignificance to the film compared to Parker and Turner.The cinematography has a certain beauty to it at times, and the slow transition from the exclusive close ups on Turner early on towards a wider field of view show his widening perspectives as he grew in knowledge and stature. Yet none of this is enough to undo the impact of the previously mentioned narrative additions, and despite Parker’s performance, the middle section, as he tours preaching, is the weakest, storytelling via repetition, rather than via progression or development.
Ultimately, this is intended to be a film that situates a significant but seemingly futile aspect of the history of American slavery in the ‘bigger picture’ as the last shot – cutting to the same boy who betrayed the Rebellion as now a frontline soldier in the Civil War – attempts to show. But all of that is undone by Parker’s one-man-band filmmaking, and by questionable choices in repurposing such an important moment in history.