Decently made “Birth of a Nation” fails to overcome Parker controversy

Justin Jones

“The Birth of a Nation” director, writer and star Nate Parker created one of the most-discussed films of the 21st century. But while the film’s initial showing at Sundance inspired hype from critics, the positive rhetoric was largely overshadowed when Variety uncovered some disturbing skeletons in Parker’s closet. 

While attending Penn State in 1999, Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of raping a fellow student, and Parker was acquitted of all charges. In August, news broke of the suicide of their accuser, sparking a media storm and shaking the film’s awards season hopes. 

Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” fails to overcome the controversy. The film is intricately directed, wonderfully acted and masterfully shot, but overall feels repetitive and uninspired. 

The film shares names with the 1915 silent film that portrayed African-Americans as savages and the Ku Klux Klan as protagonists, but it rejects everything its racist predecessor stood for. Instead, Parker’s film follows slave Nat Turner (Nate Parker) as he grows up reading the Bible and witnessing the horrors of slavery. His master, Samuel (Armie Hammer), treats his slaves with relative respect, but the film makes it clear he is not a hero or even a good person. Turner eventually convinces Samuel to purchase another slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who he later marries. Turner goes on a tour of the local plantations, where preaching to the slaves and witnessing cruelty motivates Turner to lead slaves in a night of violent rebellion.

The film is similar to 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” but fails to bring anything new to the table. Steve McQueen’s masterpiece perfects the genre, and this film attempts to copy it, including scenes of senseless brutality, the rape of slaves by white men, a “good” slave owner contrasting “bad” slave owners, a whipping scene and even a low-hanging willow tree. 

The only narratively new element of the first two acts is the way it presents Nat Turner’s character. From the moment he is born, Turner is portrayed as special, indicated by birthmarks on his chest. His community treats him like a modern superhero and the film itself follows suit, with Turner learning to hone his preaching skills before using them to incite violence upon the slave owners.

This opens the door for many fascinating scenes that question the morality of slavery and war. Although the characters do not explicitly discuss this, the slave owners use the Bible to defend slavery, while Turner uses it to justify violence against them. Parker does not simply raise these questions but answers them wisely, depicting Turner as righteous and the slave owners as villainous.

Unfortunately, these questions of morality never really take the film anywhere. Turner’s rebellion is depicted mostly in a montage toward the movie’s end, playing out in a sequence similar to Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Tarantino uses outlandish violence as a source of entertainment, but Parker gets bogged down in realism. Turner and a growing army of slaves travel through Virginia, killing slavers after slavers, but “The Birth of a Nation” ignores the moral grayness of the situation, expecting the audience to find it cathartic. Most of these scenes are shown without any of the emotional or moral attachment established earlier in the film, leaving it feeling empty.

Nate Parker successfully created a talked about work of art, well-executed in many ways, but ends up just synthesizing previous works, failing to bring anything substantial or new.

“The Birth of a Nation”

  • Rating: R
  • Runtime: 120 minutes
  • Score: 3/5 stars