“Birth of a Nation” is a film of immense and undeniable power. Certainly, when the year-end accounting is done, it will be widely considered one of the year’s best.
You cannot imagine how many satellite subjects revolve around that bare fact. The most obvious is star/co-writer/director Nate Parker pointedly getting his title from the savagely ironic appropriation of the title of D.W. Griffith’s monstrous 1915 masterpiece which was racist, despicable and the virtual invention of cinematic storytelling grammar in America.
Griffith took his story from Thomas Dixon’s “heroic” novels about the Ku Klux Klan. Parker’s film is about the 48-hour slave rebellion led by slave Nat Turner in Virginia.
Turner’s first slave revolt also was the subject of one of the more controversial novels of the 1960s, “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron, the white Southerner among the most admired (“Sophie’s Choice,” “Lie Down in Darkness”) in the generation of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and James Baldwin. After initially winning the Pulitzer Prize, a significant backlash by black writers set in, complaining of Styron’s use of African-American dialect, black sexuality and free fictionalization (including stream-of-consciousness) of a crucial event of African-American history.
There were intermittent efforts to make a film about Turner - one by Norman Jewison at the time of the book’s publication, another later attempt to get Spike Lee interested. Parker’s, at long last, is the first major film about Turner. And there it is pointedly emblazoned with the same title as the most racist major film ever made in America.
Parker, unlike Styron, is black. But he is fictionalizing every bit as much as Styron. He invents a wife for Turner out of whole cloth. And he makes her a rape victim. There is a brutal white rape of another slave. Both become crucial justification for his violent rebellion.
Styron’s book was based on a real text by Turner from which, wrote Styron, it became obvious to him that Turner was a “dangerous religious lunatic ... a psychopathic monster.” Parker’s Turner is nothing of a sort, however religious.
Parker’s handling of women in life as opposed to “Birth of a Nation” is among the things that have caused howling objections to his film. He was tried and found not guilty of a gang rape in college from which his friend and roommate was initially found guilty (and released later because of inadequate representation). The subsequent suicide of the victim and the death certificate’s contention that, in life, she suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome, in part, because of abuse has hopelessly tainted Parker as an instrument of racial justice in American film. He defended himself on last Sunday’s “60 Minutes” - none too convincingly when you consider that he is an actor used to simulating emotions. Whatever happened to the victim in the company of Parker and his roommate (who co-wrote “Birth”) was ugly, indeed vile, campus sex. At best, it was a couple of jocks taking crude advantage of a girl who admitted to being drunk.
The hideous fact about life is that the morality of art and the morality of artists are two different things. It would be nice if the Nazis couldn’t point to the writings of Richard Wagner as influences on those who murdered millions of Jews; it would be nice if Caravaggio had never committed murder and if Norman Mailer hadn’t stabbed one of his wives and then written a poem which claimed “so long as you use the knife, there’s some love left.” But the beauty of Wagner’s music and Caravaggio’s extraordinary paintings remains. The best works of Mailer are among the key literary works of their time.
“Birth of a Nation” is a cinematic juggernaut. The cumulative portrait of Turner and its rebellion is immense. The film is certainly enormously violent during the rebellion Turner leads (axes are used; slave owners are decapitated) and appalling to watch during the cruelty and torture of slaves by their masters. But at crucial points, the camera turns away at the exact moment when an exploitative sleazemeister would have relished the horror. Parker is never confused about the violence he must show to horrify us and what he can’t show us, lest we be disgusted.
Given our cinematic history – so horrifically beginning with Griffith– it is nothing but proper that we are finally getting films about the pure atrocities of slavery. Just as we are on the point in the film of excusing Turner’s owners for their relative humanity amid the most inhumane of institutions, Turner’s master reveals himself to be an ineffectual drunk and enabler of the worst behavior among his neighbors.
Parker isn’t afraid to show us a slave mistress encouraging Turner’s reading abilities as a child, as long as we understand fully that what when he is hired to preach to fellow slaves, his master is being paid for Turner’s efficacy in making his fellow slaves acquiescent and non-violent amid atrocity.
Until, that is, that huge historical moment in America when they are not.
Almost everything about this film comes fraught with conflict, for all its power. What, finally, could be more predictable than that?
“Birth of a Nation”
Four stars out of four
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aunjanue Ellis, Jacke Earle Haley
Director: Nate Parker
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: R for disturbing violence and brief nudity
The lowdown: Nat Turner leads the first slave rebellion in American history