If one requires proof that The Birth of a Nation is brazenly incendiary, one needn’t look any further than the title itself. For a film about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising to merely invoke the title of D.W. Griffith’s iconic work – as venerated for its filmmaking mastery as it is reviled for its depictions of race – is to reclaim agency and purpose from a regressive stranglehold, to forcibly wrest a legacy from oppressors both symbolic and literal. Such is the film’s purpose – it is a primal scream against tyranny, raging against centuries of open hatred and subsequent decades of thinly-veiled persecution in the margins of an otherwise evolving society.
We live in that evolving society, 150 years since the ratification of the 13th Amendment, but only eight years since the election of our first black president, and mere days since the last publicly reported police shooting of an unarmed black man. So it seems evolution trudges along at its own pace, marking incremental growth that over decades feels remarkable, but leaving those pockets of organized hate and institutional racial bias that persist in opposition to the march of progress. So rampant is the epidemic of police brutality against people of color that many commentators have suggested this country needs an uprising, a revolt – a notion not entirely disconnected from that which Turner organized in 19th century Virginia. Let it never be questioned or denied that we need a film like this, intensely and immediately.
We meet Turner as a child but swiftly transition to his adulthood – this isn’t a film about the long haul of a man’s biography, but about a close-up of his slave experience, a meditation on his essence. Nate Parker plays Turner, in a performance of immersive grace. We feel the years of subjugation in his eyes as he ardently works the cotton fields, feel the weight of oppression in his body even as he dutifully completes everyday chores, and eventually see the spiritual switch flip inside his soul as he accompanies owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) on journeys from plantation to plantation, preaching to his broken peers. The slave owners exploit Nat’s literacy and speaking abilities by using him as a tool to soothe their demoralized servants, but Nat sees a revolution in his sermons, a palpable missive direct from the Lord to break the cycle of oppression via any means necessary.
Parker is not only the film’s star, but also its director, writer, and co-producer. It has been his passion project for years, and that passion lives in every line and every frame. Most everyone is also now familiar with the filmmaker’s former rape allegations and subsequent acquittal in spite of fairly damning evidence. His co-defendant in the trial, Jean Celestin, was convicted, but appealed and was released after the plaintiff refused to withstand the rigors of another contentious trial. As Parker has since shot to fame, his accuser dropped out of school and later committed suicide. Now Parker has delivered a near-masterpiece, and Celestin receives Story By credit. How could this possibly exist in the same universe, that this brilliant artist, who has authored a film about the lingering blisters of oppression, also be someone’s oppressor? Can we acknowledge his unseemly history, admonish his persistently stubborn refusal to apologize for it, and still embrace, even celebrate, his film?
We must strive to reconcile these immensely troubling notions because, frankly, that is precisely what The Birth of a Nation implores us to do. It is an odyssey of outrage, a fiercely blunt and endlessly provocative exploration of the heinous wounds inflicted on a people, the indefensible sins of a nation, and both the profundity and futility of revolt. What a complex path it charts, led only by its courageous conviction. All of that is not to suggest that the film is even remotely unconventional; to the contrary, it is quite square-jawed in its narrative and themes, earnest from opening shot to closing credits. However, its conventions underscore its raw ferocity. A more delicately calculated film would confine itself inside a box of its own artistry. Not so here; while the film is beautifully rendered, form isn’t its central preoccupation. It’s a picture fueled by pure, visceral emotion – its style is dictated by its righteous indignation. This is a prayer at shouting pitch, a hymn whose music is written in blood. One could say the film exhumes vicious ghosts long ago put to pasture, but not so – an old grievance is unearthed every time an innocent person of color is killed unjustifiably, a different scab ripped off with the firing of every bullet. Our nation was born when it shed the hatred of its former iteration, and a century-and-a-half of progressive nurturing is still battling against the regressive nature of long ago. Against racism. Against tyranny in all forms. And yes, against rape culture.