Oh boy… I guess it’s impossible to talk about this film without addressing the controversy some months ago surrounding the film’s director and star, Nate Parker (NON-STOP , THE GREAT DEBATERS , and RED TAILS ).
Half a year ago, this film was making its rounds in film festivals and even got a standing ovation at Sundance. It was a gem for the critics and were already praising it as a potential Oscar winner. But then something happened. Something horrible. Parker’s past caught up with him and hit him where the sun don’t shine. In 1999, he was a student in Pennsylvania State University, where he and his co-writer for the film Jean Celestin were promising wrestling athletes. Then they were arrested; charged for committing a heinous act that can’t be properly expressed: rape and sexual assault of an eighteen year old freshman at their school. Parker was later acquitted, but Celestin served four years before being released. In depth details about the incident can be found below:
The story didn’t really end. In 2012, the girl that Parker was charged with raping had committed suicide, after suffering through years of depression, mental health issues, addictions, and who knows what else. Whenever Parker is confronted about it, he expresses great sadness, was devastated to hear of the woman’s suicide, but as far as I know, has never once apologized.
To make matters even more damning, there’s apparently a scene in the movie that shows a rape scene. All of this sent the movie’s popularity down the crapper and is getting as much negative press now as it was getting praise earlier in the year. Much of the internet has expressed no interest in seeing the movie, sick to their stomachs that Parker might win an Oscar for his movie, but justice was never seen for the victim.
On a personal level, it’s hard to keep the man separate from his work. The story being told in the film is a historic one and should be told (so I’ve gathered), and deserves to be shown to the public that may not know this time in American history. The real question seems to be, “but by Nate Parker?” Well… how many times has an act of disgusting magnitude like this truly affected the lives of celebrities who have been in that negative limelight? I remember Michael Jackson, for example. There’s video footage of him holding a baby over the side of a balcony two or three stories up. Fine, an act of irresponsibility. No one was hurt, it was just stupid. Well… how about the story about him molesting a child? His music is still being played. His name is still idolized. I don’t know about you, but I’m still chewing on that.
I won’t pretend to know everything about either the Parker or Jackson incidents in question, but this should be about the film. Not about the artist, but the artist’s work. And in retrospect, it’s not like this movie is a monologue, otherwise, I wouldn’t see it either. Lord knows I don’t want to pay money and contribute to this man’s paycheck. There is, however, other talent in the film. Gabrielle Union (the Think Like a Man movies, 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU , and BRING IT ON ) is a rape survivor and took this role because she related to her character. Does Union deserve any of the hate directed at Parker? Does she and the rest of the cast and crew somehow not deserve to be supported for her craft and talent?
Look, in my opinion (and the opinion of my super smart girlfriend), the shitty actions of a lead singer in a band aren’t the actions of the band as a whole. I have decided to see the film, will try to remain objective and separate the man from the art. So with that said, what do I actually think of the movie based on the trailers alone? It looks… okay. I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) meets AMISTAD (1997).
So lets take a look at the rest of the cast. We have Aja Naomi King, known for TV shows HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER and BLACKBOX. Armie Hammer, known for THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015), THE LONE RANGER (2013), and THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010). Penelope Ann Miller, known for THE ARTIST (2011) and CARLITO’S WAY (1993), as well as TV shows AMERICAN CRIME and MISTRESSES. Finally, we also have Jackie Earle Haley, known for LONDON HAS FALLEN (2016), WATCHMEN (2009), and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010).
Now for behind the scenes. Composing the music is Henry Jackman, known for CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) and KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015), and video game UNCHARTED 4: A THIEF’S END. Finally, the director of photography is Elliot Davis, known for LOVE THE COOPERS (2015), THE IRON LADY (2011), and TWILIGHT (2008).
It doesn’t look bad per se, but… I guess we’ll find out. Critical darling, or over-hyped? This is my honest opinion of THE BIRTH OF A NATION.
Based on true events, set in 1834. Nat Turner was born into servitude. He learned how to read at a young age, and his master’s wife, Elizabeth, was quite taken with his intellect and decided to teach him herself and eventually became a preacher. Soon, the novelty of a black preacher made its rounds around the town and Nat’s new master, Elizabeth’s son, Samuel, agrees to many requests to have him visit their lands and preach to the slaves to lift their spirits. But the more atrocities he witnesses, the mistreatment of slaves, the rape of his wife, among more, this prompts him to eventual fight back. He’s punished, but instead of learning to be a more obediant slave, he inspires a bloody revolution to free the slaves.
It’s solid. Not the shining gem of ground-breaking storytelling that the initial critics praised it to be, and certainly not damningly horrible that some are claiming it to be now, but it’s not bad.
So lets talk positives. Hammer is good. He plays Sam, the homestead’s landlord’s son, and now the burden of responsibility rests on his shoulders. His land is losing value and his family name lost a lot of prestige after his father died, and never quite picked up where it was dropped, resulting in him becoming an alcoholic. And of course, despite growing up with Nat, Sam struggles with trying to treat his slaves well, but has to remember that this is a time when master and slave means something, and he has to curl his open hand into an iron fist. He doesn’t enjoy it when that happens, but he has little choice. Sam is a fairly complex character. On the one hand, you get him and sympathize with him in some respects, as he does try to be a fair man to his slaves, but it’s impossible to fully like him as he doesn’t try to be a better man than the rest of his white racist neighbors.
Miller is wonderful as well. I feel like it’s really easy to be obvious when playing a slave owner to pretend to care about the slaves, but I do feel a genuine warmth toward them from Elizabeth. She is impressed with how almost self-taught he is and is really excited to start teaching him how to read and be a preacher. I mean, you still kinda want to slap the woman’s wrist for lines like, “those books aren’t for your kind to understand,” but she’s really the only white character that would join the revolt with Nat. Maybe not after murdering her son, but still.
Now how about the ever-awesome Haley? Man, if you need someone to be an asshole on screen, Haley’s got that down to a T, whether he’s playing the villain or protagonist. He makes it really easy to hate his character. While his role as a slave catcher is pretty thin, that’s Haley’s acting gift: making up for lack of depth, for pure memorable evil. Love this man’s work.
And I know this is a weird thing to like, but I like seeing Mark Boone Jr. on film. I don’t know, ever since his role in BATMAN BEGINS (2005), seeing him on screen is like a seeing a neighborhood carnival. They’re only around once in awhile, and never stick around long enough to be loved, but the impact left is lovable. SEVEN (1995), MEMENTO (2000), he’s a lot of fun to watch and here is no exception. Hell, I might watch SONS OF ANARCHY just for him.
But good performances aren’t everything to a movie, and this movie definitely imperfect.
Lets talk about those rape scenes (plural: to correct myself). If I understand the criticisms correctly, the reason why it didn’t work for those critics is because the camera pans away from the act before anything happens. The criticism is that because this choice is made, we don’t see the women’s reactions, therefore it’s not… part of their story? Clearly reading and comprehension isn’t my forte, but I understand where the argument comes from and would agree with it, particularly when compared to the infamous Sanza Stark scene from TV show GAME OF THRONES. Spoilers ahead if you aren’t caught up on the show. Sanza gets raped, but as it’s happening, the camera pans over to a male character who is forced to watch in horror and the shot lingers on his face. The scrutiny comes from that Sanza’s rape is portrayed in a fashion that is part of someone else’s story rather than her own. This is all based on what I read regarding the issue and my hopefully accurate interpretation of it all. However, I don’t think the same argument can be made here for either rape scene in this film because it is Nat Turner’s story. The scenes serve as additional fuel to the fire that eventually influences his choices toward rebellion, and it makes it so that he has a personal stake in it because one of the victims is his wife.
Now, I hear another argument toward one of these scenes: that it’s not historically accurate. There is no accounting that Cherry Turner was ever raped. Okay, now we have real grounds to dock a few brownie points from the film. If this never happened, then why add it into Nat’s story if it wasn’t part of his story? If it’s true that it never happened, then it’s actually doing harm to Cherry’s memory, which is showing a great deal of disgusting disrespect toward the real woman. If the real Nat Turner didn’t need his wife to be raped to lead to a revolution, then the character on screen didn’t either. Slavery is a naturally horrible thing and it’s not necessary to add that as motivation for something greater. Which is such a shame because King otherwise does a wonderful job with the role.
While this scene in particular is definitely tasteless, I can’t deny that I still enjoy a lot of the film. There are still very cute scenes with Nat and Cherry, like him handing her hand plucked flowers to her, that was really sweet! In general, Nat is a very likable and sympathetic character. While a pacifist at heart, he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. The film is very well-carried by him and you want to see his actions amount to a triumph, even though that isn’t quite the case. And I did love that final touch with that kid who had a hand in stopping the revolt and as he watches Nat being hung for his crimes, he’s shown to be fighting in the civil war much later on. I can’t really explain why, but I really liked that closing thought.
So is the film good? It’s solid. It’s not a bad watch, but there are better movies out there that tackle this subject matter. I don’t think my time was wasted or anything. It could have been much worse, but for what I got, it’s a decent biopic.
My honest opinion of THE BIRTH OF A NATION: a strong 3/5
- MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE