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Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation is almost good enough to withstand its controversy

It’s a deeply flawed, deeply Christian film about overthrowing unjust systems.

Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker (center) starred in, directed, produced, and co-wrote The Birth of a Nation.
Fox Searchlight

Of the dozens upon dozens of films opening this fall, few have attracted as much discussion as Nate Parker’s cinematic depiction of the life of Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation, which opens in theaters on October 7.

Rating


3.5

From its (premature) anointment as a Best Picture frontrunner when it debuted at Sundance in January to the recent series of articles digging into past allegations of rape against Parker (who was ultimately acquitted), the film has almost become an afterthought to the conversation around it.

In the case of the latter, this is probably how it should be. Parker’s unearthed past has inspired the messy conversations we need to have about consent and the changing way we think about sexual assault, which my colleague Caroline Framke dug into terrifically here.

It’s also understandable why Parker’s past has become such a hot-button issue around the film’s release. It would be one thing if he just starred in the movie or just directed it. But he stars and directs and produces and writes.

He has said he made the film because, as a black man, he was tired of the roles Hollywood offered him. He is this movie, really — and that’s before you get to the fact that his co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin, was actually convicted of rape in the exact same case. (His conviction was later overturned after the prosecution declined to pursue a retrial.)

So how is Birth of a Nation?

It’s pretty good! There are places where it rises above the controversy and takes wing under its own power. And there are places where it becomes incredibly difficult to separate the film from the man who made it.

But one thing’s for sure: Parker is a better actor than he is a director.

Birth of a Nation is a powerful story, sloppily told

The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker (right) and Armie Hammer star in The Birth of a Nation.
Fox Searchlight

In Birth of a Nation, Parker finally brings to the screen the story of Nat Turner, who over two days led the most successful slave rebellion of the pre–Civil War South. More than 60 members of slave-owning families died at the hands of Turner and his army, and Southerners were so terrified he would become a martyr that they essentially destroyed his body, lest it become some sort of sacred relic.

It would be one thing to just tell the story of that rebellion. It’s certainly exciting enough to support a movie. But Parker goes further and digs into why Turner became convinced armed revolt was necessary.

Yes, a lot of that has to do with the brutal horrors of slavery as an institution — which Parker depicts in ways that spare viewers from seeing most true brutality — but it also has to do with Turner’s deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. (He saw so many of the worst things about slavery because he would travel among plantations to preach on Sundays.)

Thus, Birth becomes the most forthrightly Christian film at this level of quality since The Passion of the Christ (a movie with which this shares many flaws, oddly). It’s a movie about what happens when turning the other cheek isn’t enough, when the dark realities of the world require flipping to the part of the Bible where Jesus says he came to bring not peace but a sword. And as a twinned tale of simultaneous religious and political awakening, it’s frequently thrilling.

There are whole sequences in this film that are as transporting as anything I’ve seen this year. In particular, a scene where Turner realizes that slave owners aren’t really listening to what he preaches, because they consider the words of the Bible a pacifying tool, plays out with a fitting righteous indignation, while the eventual rebellion and its aftermath are a cacophony of blood and noise.

But then the movie will slip out of these terrific sequences and back into something much more pedestrian. In the early going, for instance, there are scenes where, say, three actors are onscreen, but Parker has blocked them so that two are standing in roughly the same spot, causing one to blot out the other.

But what’s even harder to deal with — especially in light of the controversy — is how Parker depicts himself on camera.

Birth of a Nation struggles with how to make Nat Turner an icon as well as a man

Birth of a Nation
Nat Turner’s Christian faith and preaching serve as a turning point for him.
Fox Searchlight

To dissect how Parker the director lets down both Parker the actor and Turner the historical figure, let’s talk about the film’s single best shot.

Late at night in one of those big plantation houses, Turner has decided to begin his rebellion by killing a slave owner. The slave owner wakes up and sees a dark shadow standing at the foot of his bed — a fairly classic creepy movie trope. He asks who it is before concluding, “Nat?”

And then Turner steps forward, into a single beam of light that illuminates his face. He confirms his identity and raises a hatchet to kill the man (about whom more in a bit). The implication is clear: By embracing his desire for a violent, radical upending of the social order, Turner has stepped out of the darkness and into the light, quite literally. He once was lost, but now he’s found.

What’s interesting about this shot is that it works where so many similar ones don’t. Parker shoots much of the film in a baffling series of close-ups that obscure a lot of the work his actors are doing in playing off each other. There’s a payoff, of sorts, to these close-ups late in the film, but I’m not sure it was enough of one to excuse how littered the first half of the film is with tight shots that don’t really have a reason to exist.

But it also exemplifies how Parker shoots the character of Nat Turner — which is usually from below, the camera gazing up in wonderment, as a soft halo of golden light surrounds him, making him seem almost angelic. Parker doesn’t want you to think Turner was a good or even great man; he wants you to think he was the best man, an American icon who deserves more attention than he’s gotten.

And that’s all well and good, but it’s hard to make movies about icons, who tend to not have much in the way of character arcs or development. Parker, thus, awkwardly swerves between shooting Turner as a man and Turner as an icon, in a way that doesn’t exactly gel.

This, in a nutshell, is Parker’s major problem as a director: He has good ideas, but then he has more over-the-top variations on those ideas that don’t work as well. For instance, a monarch butterfly settling on the swinging corpse of a hanged man is a surprisingly graceful way to suggest the presence of God amid dark chaos — but then at other times in the movie, Parker drops in visions of a literal angel, which works less well.

Parker is quite good in this part. His righteous monologues feel appropriately righteous, and he completely sells the idea that Turner’s faith is what leads to his eventual rebellion. But his inexperience as a director — this is his first major film — shows at almost every turn.

And that’s why the controversy surrounding the film could still hurt it. When Parker treats Turner as a borderline deity, it’s hard not to escape the very human, very flawed person up there onscreen. It’s impossible to look at Nat Turner’s presentation as a Christ figure and not think about all the other things you know about the man playing him.

Birth of a Nation is great at depicting white supremacy, though

Birth of a Nation
Nat Turner and his wife are married.
Fox Searchlight

If there’s one area where Birth of a Nation shines throughout, it’s in the way the film depicts how casually ingrained systems of supremacy become with those who benefit from them.

Parker doesn’t depict every slave owner in the film as a detestable human being. Indeed, Turner’s owners — first a woman played by Penelope Ann Miller and then her son, played as an adult by Armie Hammer — are kind to him, all things considered, and the film makes clear Hammer’s character thinks of Nat as a close friend.

But because of the inherently depraved system all of these people live within, the two can’t be friends. To be friends requires equality, and to tell yourself otherwise is an even crueler lie than simply treating the “other” as subhuman.

This idea resonates throughout the film: Those who benefit from such depraved systems are rarely able to fully understand how complicit they are in the very existence of said systems. Like no other film, Birth of a Nation made me understand how even the “good” white Southerners were propping up something terrible and couldn’t be bothered to understand what that meant.

It’s here that Parker lets his film reach out and just barely touch the present, without really calling attention to what he’s doing. He doesn’t overtly say it, but it’s clear what he means by it anyway. Inequality isn’t wiped away by being well-meaning, and racism can’t be solved through kindness.

Change takes blood and anguish, and it may never be done. But history hasn’t been solved. We’re not released from it. We’re all on the continuum, striving for some better tomorrow.

Birth of a Nation opens on October 7.