Review: The Birth of a Nation Isn’t Strong Enough to Shake Director’s Past

While at times visually stunning, a seemingly made-up rape scene feels like a peculiar use of narrative license given the controversy surrounding the film.

Scene from The Birth of a Nation
Scene from The Birth of a Nation Fox Searchlight

Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers.

The Birth of a Nation reminded me of Old Man Harris.

He was a bluesman in the Mississippi Delta before he became the director of the men’s chorus at my childhood church.

He claimed that he’d played with the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf before he “came to da Lawd,” but I could never verify it because, you know, Negroes be lyin’. One thing is for certain: He had a healthy suspicion of white folks.

Once, after he performed at a Southern Baptist white church to great acclaim, I found him with his brows furrowed, putting away his guitar and mumbling to himself.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, confused. “You killed it.”

“Boy, I don’t trust no white folks,” he retorted. “If they clap too loud, I know I ain’t let the truth speak.”

Before the film was overshadowed by the revelation that Nate Parker was acquitted under dubious circumstances of sexual assault, The Birth of a Nation was lauded as an achievement in filmmaking. It received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Fox Searchlight acquired it for a record $17.5 million. Parker was praised for his visionary and brave retelling of the life of Nat Turner.

Despite my deep misgivings about Parker’s behavior as a student at Penn State, his nonsensical statements about not understanding consent while adamantly denying that he committed a sexual assault, and his use of the “I have a daughter and wife” defense against sexual violence that reminded me of the “I have black friends” defense used by white folks found engaging in racist behavior—I at least expected the film to be good.

What I got was a movie made by a director too stylish for his own good, full of brilliant performances by black women exploited for patriarchal purposes. This is a Nat Turner movie for white folks who think themselves progressive but are unwilling to see the pervasiveness of white supremacy.

Part of what’s so frustrating is that Parker is a gifted filmmaker. He has an assured visual style and is unafraid to experiment with framing and composition. He mixes a formalist approach to filmmaking with scenes of surrealism. One minute, there is a beautiful shot of cotton as far as the eye can see that punctuates the Sisyphean task the enslaved undertook when they picked cotton; and immediately thereafter, Parker places a surreal scene of a man holding a bleeding ear of corn. Yet he is sometimes too stylish.

There is a horrific scene of black bodies hanging from trees that seems to be there for no reason other than for Parker to show us that he can make even the awful appear beautiful. In another scene, after Turner is whipped, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal that candles line the porches. It’s a beautiful scene, but unnecessary. It felt as if Parker was beside me whispering, “[S–t’s] dope, huh?”

Nah, bruh.

Yet, in this time of political unrest, one cannot view this film devoid of the cultural context in which it was made and premiered. This is a political statement as much as it is an artistic one, and there are some things The Birth of a Nation gets right—and more that it gets horribly wrong.

Religion plays an important role in the film, and the way it shows how the invisible institution of the black church during slavery saw God in a different light than the slave owners is nearly spot on. The way Turner is taught to use the Bible as a tool to oppress enslaved Africans is brilliantly juxtaposed with the way he came to see God as a being interested in the liberation of the oppressed. The use of double entendre to communicate that slave masters and enslaved Africans saw the Bible differently echoes the way spirituals were used and is exciting to see captured on-screen. The film plays out like a visual work of biblical exegesis, and for that I give Parker credit. However, my praise for the film stops there.

The movie begins with a quote from the noted slave owner and subscriber to white supremacist ideology Thomas Jefferson and ends with the faces of black men running toward the screen dressed in Union uniforms. The filmmakers make it clear from the beginning that this will not be a critique of slavery as an American institution. Armie Hammer plays Samuel Turner as a relatively kind slave owner until he becomes drunk, and his mother, Elizabeth Turner, played by Penelope Ann Miller, is a racist but depicted as a seemingly benevolent one. One gets the impression that the rebellion would not have happened if not for the sexual assault of Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry, played brilliantly by Aja Naomi King.

I do not subscribe to the school of thought that historical films like The Birth of a Nation must adhere as doggedly to facts as one would expect in a documentary or nonfiction text. I’m comfortable with deviation from specifics for the purposes of dramatic tension or compression of time for the sake of narrative flow, but when these choices are made, we must evaluate them through the lens of the political—especially in a film like this. That is why the aforementioned sexual assault is disturbing.

“[T]here is not a shred of historical evidence to suggest that Cherry was ever raped by slave patrollers, nor is there any evidence to indicate that an attack on his wife inspired Turner to rebel,” Leslie Alexander writes in The Nation. “By all accounts, Turner took up arms against slavery because he believed slavery was morally wrong and violated the law of God.”

Parker’s choice to make this up and include it in the film speaks to his patriarchy. And the way King, Gabrielle Union and Aunjanue Ellis are reduced to one-dimensional characters who oscillate between damsels in distress in need of a man to save them and the embodiments of virtue who look on approvingly while men do the work of liberating the black community is Hotep on 10. All that was needed was a cameo of Umar Johnson in the role of “wokest slave ever.”

This movie had potential. Unfortunately, it accommodates white supremacy and is a bit too impressed with its own stylish filmmaking. It wants to tell the rebellion of Nat Turner without indicting America in the system that gave him his righteous indignation.

Also on The Root:

Nate Parker Is Ready to Move On From His Past and Wants the Focus on Nat Turner

The Birth of a Nation Is an Important Film Worth Seeing Despite Its Flaws