Much has been made of The Birth of a Nation's stratospheric rise to Oscar-frontrunner status at this year's Sundance Film Festival where it received standing ovations and was sold for a record $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight Pictures. Recently, even more has been written (and deservedly so) about the damning 1999 rape allegations against writer/director/star Nate Parker and his friend and co-writer Jean Celestin, both of whom ultimately escaped criminal punishment. More than a decade after the incident, their victim committed suicide.
Separating art from the artist is difficult, especially in this case where Parker has situated himself as the great auteur of a socially relevant allegory about the long history of American racism. But this bruising biopic depicts those years leading up to Nat Turner's bloody 1831 slave rebellion as a thin version of Cliff's Notes where history has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. Analyzing this problematic approach should be a separate discussion from the real-world controversy waging in the press.
Opening with a Thomas Jefferson quote about injustice, the film then segues to a ritualistic coronation of young Turner that foreshadows his righteous calling. He will "hold the holy words of our ancestors," says one spiritual leader to the boy's mother in a surreal and primal sermon in the woods. Here lie the ideological beginnings of what will eventually turn into a physical insurrection against the brazen horrors of plantation life. Like so many climactic moments in the film, Parker overcuts the scene, stripping it of all mystery by refusing to hold on a single take for long.
Style is a means to a manipulative end in The Birth of a Nation. Turner's pivotal life experiences—his relationship with the bible, the loss of his father or the intimate murder that begins his rebellion—are augmented by maximum aesthetic impact. Music cues crescendo as atrocities are thrust to the forefront of the frame. Aerial shots soar over cotton fields and tree lines with the force of IMAX spectacle. Montages bleed into each other and are Parker's obvious safety net. The image of a headshot black man lying on the side of the road is supposed to shock us, but all it does is solidify the director's penchant for obvious bombast.
Blunt force trauma can be effective when used correctly, but Parker's lack of experience (this is his debut film) and defiantly combative style decries the nuance needed to humanize Turner and deepen the social meaning of his efforts. Throughout The Birth of a Nation, he is depicted in absolutes, first as a tool for religious control by his white master Samuel (Armie Hammer), and later as a daring martyr for the repressed and disaffected. The husband/son/man that exists in between these extremes remains a mystery.
Strangely, Parker's aesthetic approach most resembles the cinema of Mel Gibson. It's all gushing wounds, bloody stiches, knife trusts, decapitations and strategically placed hanging bodies. Such images may be striking but they are also gratuitous, portraying the pre-Civil War American South as tour of depravity that never ends. There's nothing inherently honorable or complex about presenting these visuals simply to punish the viewer. Where's the substance, or the layers of human conflict? The Birth of a Nation only has time for loud symbolism posing as social justice.
While Parker shows a coherent understanding of the evolution behind Turner's path toward violence, the rebellion itself is a staggeringly inept climax that adopts many of the worst standard Hollywood tropes. Nothing compares to the unforgivable last five minutes, which copies Braveheart's torturous ending almost verbatim. Turner's dying face fills the screen caught in a suffocating tight shot, exclamation points of sacrifice radiating from his tortured eyes.
The Birth of a Nation, which opens Friday, Oct. 7, then reincarnates man into legend with a simple plume of musket smoke. If only myth making were that simple. At this point, we might as well be watching an episode of Drunk History without the cutting satire.