There is plenty of extracinematic material to chew over in considering Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation—the film’s rapturous response at Sundance, the way it rode over the horizon and onto the awards scene just as the movie industry was grappling with #oscarssowhite, the emergence of the story of Parker’s 2001 trial for rape—but let’s start with the sheer bravado of the movie’s title. Parker’s gambit in nicking the title of the 1915 D.W. Griffith Civil War epic now remembered less for its brilliant cinematic innovation than for its vile racism is plain: to take back not just film history but American history, to give the nation a second chance at birth.
In some ways, Parker may have succeeded—if not in wresting the technical filmmaking trophy away from Griffith (good luck with that), then in turning a little-discussed historical event into an audacious and suspenseful action picture, a kind of antebellum Braveheart. But I sensed a dishonesty at the center of Birth of a Nation that had nothing to do with its director’s personal history and a lot to do with history itself. There’s a deliberate mythmaking quality to Parker’s reconstruction of the real-life Nat Turner, who was a much more morally complex figure than the righteous avenger Parker writes, directs, and plays him as. And by “morally complex,” I mean capable of organizing a ragtag slave militia, armed at first only with farm tools, that cut a swath through Virginia over a span of two days in 1831, freeing scores of slaves and butchering about 60 white people, including women, children, and babies.
There’s no telling the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion without grappling with that death toll, even if it is dwarfed by the number of slaves who were killed afterward in retaliation by white mobs and militias (around 200). Turner’s story often gets left out of the schoolbook histories of black resistance struggles for a reason: It’s easier to make a moral example of Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King than of a man who countenanced the killing of children. Nat Turner’s story should have a significant place in the nation’s cultural memory, but if you’re going to tell it, tell it whole. It doesn’t help anyone to draw connections between past and present without acknowledging the contradictions and paradoxes of both.
Instead Parker constructs a heroic saga whose basic shape is familiar from many a Hollywood action movie: A good man, pushed past the point of violence by injustice, takes the law and his life into his own hands to avenge some harm inflicted on his nearest and dearest.
As a small child, Nat (played as a boy by Tony Espinosa) plays with Sam, the son of the owner of the cotton plantation where he lives, under the seemingly benevolent gaze of Sam’s mother (Penelope Ann Miller). She takes note of Nat’s exceptional abilities and teaches him to read—though she limits his curriculum to the Bible, condescendingly noting that the books he stares at longingly “are full of stuff your kind wouldn’t understand.”
The adult Sam (Armie Hammer), who inherits the plantation after his father’s death, is the film’s only multidimensional white character; as played by Hammer and written by Parker, Sam has a haunted, doomed quality. Even if he hadn’t been fated to die at his own slaves’ hands, you suspect he would have killed himself by alcohol or some other means, his soul corroded by the “peculiar institution” that allows him to buy, sell, and dispose at will of the human beings among whom he grew up. When a superevil reverend (Mark Boone Jr.) notices Nat’s gift for preaching, he suggests that the cash-poor Sam rent him out to neighboring plantations to preach obedience and good behavior to their slaves. Shocked by the horrors he witnesses and plagued by strange dreams of avenging angels and cornstalks dripping with blood, Nat begins to conceive of the idea of recruiting an army of rebels to fulfill the Biblical prophecy that “the last shall be first.”
Most of the black characters—including, unfortunately, the central one—are nearly as thinly written as the white ones. Parker, who seems more confident as an actor than as a director, nonetheless makes the tormented Nat into a sympathetic hero. Gabrielle Union, as a fellow slave at the Turner plantation whose forced prostitution is an important driver of the revenge plot, gets barely a line to speak. Nat’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King)—a house slave at a plantation nearby—has a slightly more substantial role, but it’s too soon sacrificed on the altar of another sexual-assault subplot. These rape stories, though they are no doubt accurate composite portraits of the grim reality of life under slavery, had no role in the historical Nat Turner incident; they’ve been inserted to make Turner’s quest for justice less abstract and more personal, as if slavery weren’t concrete and personal enough. In the context of the movie’s plot, the army Nat raises functions primarily to defend the honor of a violated wife. In short, Parker instrumentalizes the violation of women to justify the violence of men—a pattern that’s all too familiar both in narrative drama and in real life, and that makes clear why rape survivors might want to steer clear of The Birth of a Nation regardless of the director’s personal history.
Stylishly (if unsubtly) shot, suspensefully paced, and unapologetically gory, The Birth of a Nation is at its core a vigilante movie run through a handsome historical filter. It’s to the writer-director’s credit that he was able to get a movie on this subject made and distributed on this scale, and if it becomes a box-office hit and wins all kinds of awards the film industry may be the better for it. But if Parker’s unambiguously heroic gloss on the Nat Turner story—with which Parker has said he wants to strike “a blow against white supremacy and racism”—lives on in the popular imagination as the only version, it would be an injustice to both the present and the past.