REVIEW: ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ do-over

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Discussing Nate Parker’s fall from grace touches so many hot-button issues that juggling a live grenade appears a more innocuous proposition. But separating art from its artist is a key component in the pact we make when approaching any text. It’s at the heart of the intentional fallacy, the suggestion that criticism shouldn’t resemble psychoanalysis. T.S. Elliot’s antisemitism, for example, doesn’t rob “The Wasteland” of its potency. While the assumption that we can deduce meaning from an artist’s own suggestions and behavior is a seductive idea, it also imbues artists with a flimsy authority. Artists create, perform, and evade; they’re masters of misdirection. In taking an artist’s word as gospel, we conjure the illusion of objectivity and dismiss our own judgment, check integrity at the door.

Then again, some artists all but beg their work be taken as an extension of themselves. Their fixations and proclivities are embedded in their work to such a degree that the act of creation can seem less like a complicated process than a reflex reaction. Intuiting that Alfred Hitchcock may have some issues with peeping is an offer too inviting to pass up.

With The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker (writer, director, producer, star) all but invites viewers to conflate the real and the make-believe. In his telling of Nat Turner’s rebellion, Parker places himself front and center as a figure of New Testament gentility and Old Testament vengeance. (Indeed, Christianity is the movie’s fundamental moral center.) His Turner is a terminator saint, and Parker frontloads the movie with so much lurid grotesquery that, when revolution sparks, the audience is primed. Borrowing its build from pulp and its look from prestige, it’s simultaneously grand and deviant and nothing in between. (Given the consequences of Turner’s revolution—thousands were indiscriminately slaughtered—the material demands a nuance that the movie doesn’t deliver. By the time a literal angel ushers Turner into the heavens, The Birth of a Nation has abandoned the real world entirely.)

The movie announces its bold challenge with its title, a gesture meant to reclaim cinematic historicity more than the real thing. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was an aberrant, essential moment in the medium’s formation, and Parker’s movie positions it as the opening salvo of the 20th century’s civil war—the original sin that led us here. It’s an interesting argument, one that the movie sells through a devotion to snappy narrative convention that feels closer to Django Unchained than the cool-headed grief of 12 Years a Slave.

But there’s no reason to suggest the movie should be anything less than furious. Hollywood has been, to put it lightly, shy to trust its slave narratives to black filmmakers. Django, Amistad, and Glory were products of white men; even 12 Years a Slave was made by a Briton. The Birth of a Nation and its perspective are fundamentally African-American, without a single concession to white audiences’ liberal guilt. Sadly, that still counts as a bold move, worthy of respect for its sheer audacity. But it also burdens the movie with an undue responsibly to correct over a century’s worth of a medium’s misdeeds. No one movie could handle that baggage, especially when it’s already carrying so much.

When Parker’s allegedly criminal (and dubiously exonerated) past surfaced, one of the most damning accusations came from the movie itself. Few facts of Turner’s uprising survive; in constructing his narrative, Parker hinged Turner’s motivation on a gang rape. Many of Parker’s opponents have cited this conjured detail as proof of a reckless disregard for honesty. (Really, that moment is just one of many indignities Parker summons. The movie treats its sexual humiliations with the same false solemnity common to exploitation flicks.)

As much as I want to separate Parker from The Birth of a Nation, I can’t. It’s the work of someone as overflowing with self-indulgence and lacking in humility as Mel Gibson, whose movies The Birth of a Nation recalls more than anything else. With its fixation on flayed flesh, twisted bodies, and full-throttled viscera, this Birth of a Nation is most striking in its energetic embrace of violence as something divine. There’s a righteous rage in it, but it’s ultimately driven less by lust for blood or flesh than lust for self—as nuanced and thoughtful as Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ.

If Parker is calling for a new dialogue, he’s wielding a crude syntax. While The Birth of a Nation may be a step in the right direction, it’s also martyrdom as rallying cry. And Parker is no saint.

The Birth of a Nation. Written and directed by Nate Parker. Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, and Aja Naomi King. Opens in Kansas City October 7.

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