Nate Parker’s directorial debut The Birth of a Nation emerged from the cloud of the “#OscarSoWhite” controversy, placing it in the earliest position of any 2016 film for Oscar contender status as it presented an assailed film industry it’s quickest and easiest P.R. rehabilitation scheme. However, the racially-charged subject matter and ensuing controversy over actor/director/co-writer Nate Parker’s 1999 rape allegations doomed whatever commercial or Academy Award prospects the film originally seemed to have. For some, it was a matter of pride to attack Nate Parker whose past activities and September apology tour were merely part of “rape culture,” a social cause relevant to modern college campuses. For others, it was a matter of pride to defend Parker whose media take-down was merely an attempt to silence a historical film about black rebellion. For others, the fact that Nate Parker’s marriage and alleged rape involved a white woman brought into “question” his black credentials.
The unproductive, circular debates on slavery, racism, rape, gender and history made it much easier for critics and awards organizations (outside of the NAACP Image Awards, Black Reel Awards or African-American Film Critics Association) to write-off the film altogether rather than have to contend with debates, protests and boycotts possibly being waged at their doorstep. By late 2016, the awards season conveniently had other, better-reviewed contenders dealing with racial issues to choose from including Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures and Loving. Unfortunately, the controversies have completely overshadowed the film and little has been discussed about the film itself.
The film tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a violent rebellion in Southampton, Virginia in 1831. The film largely diverts from historical accuracy to create a Braveheart meets 12 Years a Slave drama that downplays the complexities and even harsher realities of the real-life events to engage in a less morally ambivalent story. In doing so, the film lacks any original, or even meaningful observation of the situation. Instead, the film uses a traditional storytelling frame in which all the events seem staged for an easily-identifiable affect whether it be planting the seeds of a later event or simply making certain characters unsympathetic rather than giving weight or purpose to their actions, beliefs or ideas. To his credit, Parker does demonstrate an ability toward directing as he produces good-enough performances, and fine aesthetics from cinematography to production design within a historical period drama.
Still, his film lacks heft in the storytelling department. The pacing, while consistent and spacious, fails to give the characters enough depth or room to shine, especially Aja Naomi King who might have had an extremely compelling role in the film but instead fades into the background becoming merely nothing more than a symbol of victimization. Much of the film lingers on dehumanization followed by the slowly unraveling reactions in Nate Parker’s performance as Turner, which seems designed to make the final events more perfunctory. Nevertheless, the scenes of gut-wrenching torture of slaves are never matched by events that are triumphant in reaction.
Instead, the film comes off as an exercise in despairing for its own sake. It is never uplifting or inspiring, nor does it provide any solace or satisfactory answer to the dehumanization that had transpired throughout. Instead, it presents a harrowing, and sorrow-filled experience made complete with an unsatisfactory last salvo that arouses no excitement. It ends on a seemingly defeatist and hopeless note, worded in aftermath. By the rolling credits, it becomes apparent that The Birth of a Nation has literally nothing to offer its audience as it’s story remains as depressing as it started. Its history is that of convenient Hollywood fantasy. Its frame provides no insight as it sinks under the weight of its own lack of originality. Its revenge quenches no blood-thirst. Its end lacks any hope or productive send-off. It’s less apparent, considering its poor overall results, what all this hurrah, controversy and debate was for. Such disruption of social harmony demands a better film with at the very least, something to say worth thinking about afterward.