It was a couple of months ago that I was approached by one of my marketing contacts in film about the possibility of covering The Birth of a Nation, the cinematic darling of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival where it captured both the Audience Award and the U.S. Dramatic Feature Jury Prize along with snagging a distribution deal from Fox Searchlight for a new Sundance high of $17.5 million.
By the time this particular contact reached me, news had already broken of Parker's 1999 acquittal on rape charges while a student at Penn State University; Jean Celestin, credited as Parker's co-writer on the film, was initially convicted of rape but the conviction was overturned and prosecution declined to pursue a retrial reportedly due to the fact that the accuser did not want to have to testify again.
For Parker and Celestin, life went on.
It is no secret that Fox Searchlight had intended to pursue heavy marketing efforts toward the faith-based and college communities, communities where the real life story of Nat Turner would very well deeply resonate. Indeed, it was a faith-based marketing contact who had reached out to me and offered the chance to both screen the film and, quite possibly, interview Parker himself.
I hesitated. I hesitated a lot.
This contact openly mentioned the "controversy," but attempted to reassure me ... Parker is a married man with children. "He is a Christian," I was reassured.
I wasn't reassured.
While I was able to screen The Birth of a Nation, the interview was never again approached. It would later be revealed, in quiet undertones, that Fox Searchlight had backed off plans to heavily market the film in churches and on college campuses. It was safe to assume that with no faith-based marketing efforts, there would be no Nate Parker interview.
On one hand, I was immensely relieved. On the other hand, I couldn't help but think to myself that we could have had a really important conversation.
Nate Parker was legally acquitted of rape or, as he called it, "vindicated." To call him a "rapist" would be, at least from a legal standpoint, even more than inaccurate. It would be potentially slanderous. The justice system, just as it has done for thousands of women, and men, nationwide, has spoken and has declared what it has determined to be the truth.
Parker's life went on. Celestin's life went on.
In 2012, at the age of 30, after years of trauma resulting from her reported attack that night, the life of Parker and Celestin's accuser ended in suicide.
The story of Nat Turner, upon whom The Birth of a Nation is based, is a story worthy of Hollywood's attention. It is a story that has long deserved the Hollywood spotlight and it's certainly understandable why the searing emotionally devastating story practically defined this year's Sundance Film Festival.
One can only assume that there were no black historians among those present at the Sundance Film Festival when The Birth of a Nation screened. One can only assume that Hollywood was so busy patting itself on the back for having found a film that could push back against accusations of "whitewashing" that nobody stopped to really watch the film and understand the film and challenge the film.
One can only assume that no one cared to notice that Parker, who'd professed passion for the story of Nat Turner and an absolute dedication to historical accuracy, had, in fact, constructed a film that takes not just casual liberties with the story for the sake of dramatic license but serves up broad and sweeping inaccuracies and, dare I say it, arrogant and self-serving storylines that are just plain false.
Nat Turner's story is remarkable. The Birth of a Nation is not Nat Turner's story.
Parker proclaimed to Anderson Cooper in an interview recently that "nothing is ever 100% historically accurate," a line that could just as easily apply to his "vindication" as it does to his and Celestin's script. This is most certainly true, yet it's the direction in which Parker and Celestin have chosen to twist historical accuracy that becomes most disturbing.
Can someone explain to me why a writer/director/producer with an easily discovered history of being acquitted of sexual assault, indeed gang assault, would choose to add a completely fabricated scene involving gang rape into a film professing historical accuracy?
In the film, it is this attack on Turner's wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), that serves as inspiration for Turner's decision to lead the rebellion. The problem? There's no evidence, none, that such an attack ever occurred. Nearly every historical record indicates that Turner was inspired by his faith and not by some fictional rape. Turner was known to have experienced visions regarding a race war that would end slavery, a war that he believed himself called to lead.
Why on earth isn't that dramatic enough? Why on earth would Parker feel the need to construct a wholly artificial story of gang rape in a historical film? Weren't the women already suffering enough?
The film has other inaccuracies, though the truth is there are far too many to mention:
- The shootout in Jerusalem? It never happened.
- Nat Turner's killing of his owner? False.
- Nat Turner's killing of a slave patroller? Also false.
- Was the rebellion betrayed? Um, nope.
- Are the women in The Birth of a Nation portrayed accurately? Not even close.
The simple truth is that The Birth of a Nation is an unfathomable exercise in cinematically enhanced arrogance, one man's unchecked attempt at a revisionist history that psychologically, if not quite literally, mirrors the revisionist inner workings of a heart and mind that have yet to reconcile past experiences with present realities.
If you've watched the limited number of interviews that Parker has conducted since the story of his rape acquittal surfaced, and far too many have not, then you already know that Parker has transitioned himself from a reasonably heartfelt original post on social media addressing the matter into a man who seems completely and utterly shocked, almost deer in headlights shocked, that this past life experience could be potentially wrecking what could have been, and some would say should have been, his life's greatest moment. It's as if Parker is completely unaware that one can express remorse and sorrow and conviction without necessarily relinquishing one's prized "vindication."
Why is that so difficult? Why is it so difficult to acknowledge that, even if he was "vindicated," that this young woman's life mattered and whatever happened that night was so traumatic for her that she spent years suffering over it before ending her life? Why can't he do something, anything to create something positive out of what may very well have been one of his lowest points and a low point that ultimately claimed the life of a young woman? He was "vindicated," but what is he doing with that vindication?
THIS. THIS is what he's doing with that vindication. He's creating a historically inaccurate film that exploits the black women who were enslaved and who fought like hell against the system. He's creating a historically inaccurate film that victimizes the women, such as Turner's mother who is portrayed here as meek and mild yet in real life was feisty and rebellious. He's muting the voices of women, such as Esther, powerfully portrayed by Gabrielle Union, herself an acknowledged rape victim, who is portrayed here with nary a single utterance. She is voiceless, a symbolic statement that ignores the voices of black women who fought back and who protected their families and who endured unimaginable traumas, including sexual assault, yet weren't meek or mild or timid or victims in any sense of the word.
To Parker's credit, perhaps, The Birth of a Nation is not nearly as graphic as it could have been, though others have felt it too restrained.
I couldn't help but get the sense that Parker truly believes in this film's historical accuracy and in this film's integrity.
He believes it, but it is not true.
It is hard to watch The Birth of a Nation, a film that should, at minimum, triggered an extraordinary conversation about slavery considering the time in which it's being released, but instead makes one reflect upon Parker's own comments regarding his own rape accusations that range from "I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom," the closest he's come to remorseful, to "I was falsely accused, I was proven innocent, and I’m not going to apologize for that," the latter being a comment that is at minimum smug and at its worst downright callous.
To make matters worse, if that's possible, The Birth of a Nation places its spotlight squarely upon Parker as Turner, an admittedly charismatic performer whose performance here closely resembles that of the guy who is always in the chorus who finally has a shot at a solo and is damn sure going to make the best of it.
For the most part, he does.
The script, however, is a paint-by-numbers biopic that benefits greatly from the inherent drama within its story, though Parker clearly doesn't trust that story since he felt so compelled to add unnecessary drama to it. The supporting performances are nearly all half-written caricatures saddling talented actors with insipid dialogue and cliche'd dramatics that don't begin to tap into the potential brilliance of this story. Among the supporting players, Armie Hammer fares best as Turner's owner, who believes himself to be a kinder/gentler owner. Gabrielle Union is quietly powerful, while Colman Domingo adds a warmth to the film that begins to express the community and humanity that somehow existed even amidst the unfolding horrors.
Yet, more often than not The Birth of a Nation gets trapped by Parker's own nearly messianic drive toward something that desperately wants to be a sacred expression of slavery experience yet can't get out of its way long enough to allow for that to happen. Dramatic moments do not a great film make.
The Birth of a Nation is never as relentless as it needs to be, never as mystical as it needs to be, never as cohesive as it ought to be and never pried away from the cold, steely hands of Parker long enough for it to really blossom. The real life Turner had a complexity that is well acknowledged in historical documents and well reported by members of Turner's own surviving family, yet Parker seems more intent on selling the drama than telling the story.
As I watched The Birth of a Nation, I separated the art from the artist even if it felt to me like the artist himself could not do so. Yet, as I began contemplating how to review the experience I began to realize my own truth - that art and life, artist and artist's expressions are all irrevocably interwoven into our cinematic experience. There will be those who will embrace The Birth of a Nation, some of my closest friends and most respected peers acknowledging the film and proclaiming it one of the year's best films.
So be it.
There are still other peers whose experience is closer to mine, disappointed that Parker's film, which proclaims historical integrity and aspires to greatness, creates more fiction than fact and exploits more than it inspires. There have been great films made about the black experience in America, most recently perhaps being Steve McQueen's remarkable Twelve Years a Slave, a directorial effort that is just as assured as Parker's and far more substantial.
At some point, I made a decision to forego a traditional "review" of The Birth of a Nation in favor of weaving together both my critical perspectives and my social consciousness. I cannot, and I will not, negate the experiences of the black women who were enslaved and whose actions were far greater and far braver and far bolder and far more upstanding than anything that is truly portrayed here. I also cannot, and I will not, simply dismiss the relevance of accusations, proven or not, when the actor/co-writer/director/producer himself chooses to create a historically inaccurate gang rape as a central thematic point in his film.
I can't. I won't.
By calling his film The Birth of a Nation, Parker is making a statement that his film does not live up to. Instead, The Birth of a Nation exploits many of the people and experiences it purports to respect and acknowledge. In fact, Parker's directorial effort here is far too narcissistic to acknowledge and respect anyone but himself.
The Birth of a Nation is a good film, not a great one. One can't help but escape the feeling that for Hollywood it was simply the right film at the right time before it became the wrong film at this time. There are some, perhaps many, who will proclaim that Parker's acquittal, and to a certain degree the overturning of Celestin's conviction, render the film's current status as a former Oscar favorite turned darkhorse at best to be unjust.
The Birth of a Nation was a Sundance darling destined to be an Academy Awards afterthought. While Parker's acquittal on rape charges will inevitably be blamed for the film's fading into the background, the truth is that upon viewing most of America will simply realize the film's hype was much ado about nothing.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic