Nate Parker's "Birth Of A Nation" Impresses Amidst Controversy

D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, virulently racist “The Birth Of A Nation” hasn’t spent the past hundred years as a cultural lightning rod for nothing. Scholars remain divided over its place in history as both a towering work of filmic innovation and a slush pile of bigotry and revisionism. It pioneered many of the audiovisual filmmaking techniques we take for granted today; it also spent decades as a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan. Few motion pictures have ever been at once so backward and forward thinking, and in 1915, few had ever been more commercially successful.

Accordingly, its mostly unrelated 2016 namesake – named that it might reclaim the title from Griffith’s film – has a lot of ground to make up on the controversy front. But it’s off to a fast start.

Soon after Fox Searchlight Pictures bought Nate Parker’s graphically violent slave rebellion epic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for $17 million – nearly double what it cost to make – an especially ugly event from its writer-director’s past boiled to the surface. In 1999, a college-aged Parker and future “Birth Of A Nation” co-writer Jean Celestin were charged with rape. Parker was acquitted, Celestin was convicted (the conviction was later overturned), and the accuser went on to commit suicide. The belated bombshell was met with less than contrition on the part of Parker. At times the inveterate actor’s been defiant, determined to have his directorial debut judged on its own merits.

Taken as such, the movie is impressive.

Parker – multitasking as writer, director, and star – unfurls his take on real-life slave Nat Turner with tenacity and verve, painting his subject’s 1831 rebellion as a brutal but necessary act of independence. A thoughtful screenplay is juxtaposed with some absolutely savage imagery, coalescing into an indie antebellum drama that deserves a place among the year’s most unforgettable – if not best – films.

The movie opens on a young Nat Turner plucked from the outdoors by his Virginian owners, his gift for reading repurposed into Bible-based moralizing. He goes on to become a preacher, his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) leasing him out to other slave masters to motivate their slaves.

Parker’s screenplay shrewdly uses Nat’s station in life to poke at one of the great lies of the American education system: that some slaves were treated well. Certainly some were treated better than others. But it should go without saying that a life of servitude, a life as property is integrally unbefitting of a human man or woman, and utterly indefensible on the part of the proprietor. It’s in his travels that Nat is exposed to an especially monstrous slave owner and our protagonist’s eyes are fully opened to the institutional atrocities of the American slave trade. Vengeance isn’t far behind.

But it’s not until his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is nearly killed by a bloodthirsty white man (Jackie Earle Haley) that Nat is pushed to his boiling point. He feels the Lord move him, commanding him to build up the mettle and strategy to fight back against his increasingly violent master. Soon there’s a plan in motion to turn a small army of slaves into a large one, moving from town to town, executing whites and freeing blacks.

Some of the film’s passages are more effective than others, with Parker struggling early on to find his movie’s flow. Brief, transitional scenes flash by (like that of a young Nat reading), imparting information but failing to have any further impact. The entire supporting cast is similarly underdeveloped, with Nat’s fellow slaves receiving but flickers of screen time.

But Parker’s writing and performance of his lead is frequently dazzling, at once vulnerable and inspiring, heroic and sad. If the filmmaker’s first foray into directing is occasionally a bumpy one, his acting is ever on point. He sells his character’s arc with the artistry of a master salesman. We never once doubt that a mild-mannered preacher could turn into a pitchfork-wielding killer, a transformation that’s juxtaposed expertly with a few key heat-of-the-moments asides (see: Turner vomiting after he’s made his first kill).

Still, for all of the film’s victories, its showiness (like an impossibly literal montage set to Billie Holiday’s legendary recording of “Strange Fruit”) makes it hard to detach from its own Oscar campaign and, consequently, Parker the filmmaker from Parker the man.

There’s a precedent for major Oscar contenders directed by alleged rapists, with little pushback on the part of the media or the Hollywood elite. Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” won three Academy Awards in 2003; Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” captured one for actress Cate Blanchett in 2014.

Whether those films and their filmmakers should have received more pushback is a terrific question, and Parker’s personal life is certainly fair game. But just as alleged abuser Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” remains a milestone in pop music history, Nate Parker’s “The Birth Of A Nation” might well be a milestone of indie cinema; one that, on its own merits, is deserving of any awards attention that comes its way.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 7, 2016
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Nate Parker
Screenwriter: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity)