Birth of a Nation (2016) Review

I guess no edition of The Birth of a Nation can be without controversy. The original 1915 silent epic drama film is a “historical representation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today,” as said by director D.W. Griffith in the opening credits. Despite his modest disclaimer, Griffith’s film had devastating effects on race relations that are still present today.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) is three+ hours of racist propaganda that starts with the Civil War and ends with the Ku Klux Klan riding into the South to save the whites from black rule. Griffith’s vigorous report of the Civil War and Reconstruction has been debunked as totally inaccurate; Reconstruction was a disaster, Griffith uses stereotypes to show blacks committing heinous and absurd crimes so that the KKK could swoop in and save the day. But at the time, The Birth of a Nation (1915) was presented as completely accurate, and Griffith’s film is often attributed to reigniting America’s Civil War, one that black Americans still struggle with today.

Infuriated with white supremacists having a film that documents their origins with overt pride, Nate Parker directed, wrote, produced, and starred in his own film of the same title, but with a large twist: The Birth of a Nation (2016) is an origin story of the Black Lives Matter movement. This origin doesn’t begin with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson or Trayvon Martin in South Florida, but with Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Nat Turner’s Rebellion involved rebel slaves killing about 65 people, and holds the record for the highest number of fatalities caused by any slave uprising in the Southern United States. The Rebellion inspired black freedom from white American chains, and slaves quickly learned that the only way out was to go down fighting.

The insurgence and faith shown in The Birth of a Nation (2016) is reminiscent of “social justice warriors” today, a term coined by journalists that emanates a negative connotation for these humans who simply want equal rights for all. #BlackLivesMatter and LGBTQA+ rallies and Women’s Rights movements all represent underrepresented groups taking a stand against the treatment they’ve been told to “get used to” for centuries, and their stances are just and deserved.

Receiving rave reviews since it’s premiere, winning the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and subsequently sparking a bidding war that set a new Sundance record of $17.5 million, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) had a bright future ahead. That was, until news reports uncovered the dirty truth behind director/writer/producer/actor Nate Parker and his co-writer Jean Celestin.

It is here where I’d like to let everyone know that I strongly do not support Nate Parker. I picked up the The Birth of a Nation (2016) screening weeks before reading the news, and kept my attendance to the screening as the responsibility of a film critic.

Seventeen years ago at Penn State, then-student Nate Parker and his roommate Jean Celestin were accused of raping a female classmate. According to reports, the two men and the victim had sex in Parker’s room, and the victim woke up the next morning asserting that she couldn’t remember anything from that night, and that the sex was not consensual. The victim then claimed that Parker and Celestin harassed her for months after the incident. Phone transcripts brought to the trial showed that Parker tried to make the victim take responsibility for the incident, and Parker also constantly blamed his “drinking alcohol that night” for his actions. Parker was acquitted of the charges, and Celestin was convicted of the sexual assault charges and went to jail for a mere six months. And in 2012, the victim took her own life.

There’s no question or doubt about whether the incident happened at this point; it happened, and the female victim took her life because of it. The timing of the controversy is odd, given that this seventeen-year-old case has received new light just weeks before Parker’s nationwide debut/the height of this black man’s career. But the evidence here is quite overwhelming, and alcohol is once again brought up as a horrible, fake “excuse,” and I find it extremely difficult to defend Parker. I don’t think the timing of the controversy makes a difference, and it’s even worse that Parker still refuses to apologize for the incident, claiming he’s a “family man with daughters” now (as if that makes a difference? As if that makes the past sexual abuse go away? As if that’s any kind of consolation for the victim’s family?). Roxane Gay of the New York Times said it perfectly: “Just as I cannot compartmentalize the various markers of my identity, I cannot value a movie, no matter how good or ‘important’ it might be, over the dignity of a woman whose story should be seen as just as important, a woman who is no longer alive to speak for herself, or benefit from any measure of justice. No amount of empathy could make that possible.”

So as I review The Birth of a Nation (2016) to the best of my abilities, I urge you all to consider Gay’s quote, and that the age-old “Can you separate the art from the artist?” question will never have a clean, simple answer. Meaningful art will endure regardless of how people feel about the person who made it. The best we can do is draw our lines in the sand about what classifies someone as a “terrible person,” hold to our convictions, and go from there.

The Birth of a Nation (2016) works a stellar concept but plays too much with audience sadism; it’s exactly like if Ryan Coogler directed a Braveheart remake, from the religious iconography to the martyr climax. Parker shows slaves getting whipped, their teeth getting pulled out by their masters, the bloodied cotton stained by those whose black fingers got pricked every day for work that they have yet to get reparations for. The movie plays out clumsily, what with this being a heavy-loaded debut for Parker as a writer/actor/director/producer and the message he’s trying to spread being equally cumbersome, and it makes sense since Parker isn’t really there in the director’s chair to focus his aesthetic decisions.

Though The Birth of a Nation (2016) has no issue with it’s confidence, it’s not the same unflinching yet tactful work done by Steve McQueen in 12 Years a Slave. Where McQueen focused on showing slavery as an abhorrent part of our past and forced audiences to face that fact with uneasy restraint, Parker’s whole aim seems to be to scrape as much white guilt from his audience as possible with aforementioned sadism. It’s manipulation reminded me of 2014’s Selma, where director Ava Duvernay too often gave in to predictable and drawn-out violence scenes instead of really utilizing David Oyelowo’s stellar performance and dissecting MLK’s personality and character with more depth. Selma is really good, but it’s hardly memorable two years later, which is a shame for how relevant its topics and themes continue to be, and the same can be said of The Birth of a Nation (2016).

Parker’s poor treatment of female characters is also worth noting, as almost all of them are there to serve Parker’s character. Once Parker’s character’s wife gets raped by white slavemasters in a pivotal scene, she’s given about two additional minutes of screentime, and the essential and scary idea of how specifically black women were treated back in the day is used simply as a plot-device for Parker’s character to move forward rather than an important character trait for his wife. And I realized in this scene that this is what my duty as a film critic is. As a movie consumer, I feel no urgency to support Nate Parker with a paid ticket. But as a critic for NUFEC and beyond, it’s my duty to report on the intersection of culture and politics, to see if a movie like The Birth of a Nation (2016) lives up to the Sundance hype it received, and to report on what Parker has to say about sexual violence and power via how it’s depicted in the film. I didn’t have to face the moral dilemma audiences will have to when The Birth of a Nation (2016) is wide-released, but I can only hope my discourse is able to help navigate through the discomfort.

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