Now the real work begins.
Since the unveiling of actor-turned-filmmaker Nate Parker’s feature debut The Birth of a Nation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, we have all fallen prey to heightened expectations.
Back in January, Fox Searchlight laid down $17.5 million for the distribution rights to Parker’s labor of love, largely in an attempt to seize control of a negative Hollywood narrative concerning the dearth of films featuring significant roles for people of color (roles that could earn Academy Award consideration).
And yet, by the summer, a new storyline emerged with sinister conspiratorial undertones. News spread about an alleged incident of sexual assault involving Parker and his Nation co-screenwriter, Jean Celestin, during their days as student-athletes at Pennsylvania State University. As the details of that situation from 1999 trickled out, reactions split into two camps — those who sought to defend Parker, based on questions regarding the timing of the release of information, and those who saw Parker as a villain for his role in the incident, despite the fact that he had been acquitted at the time.
As an African-American critic, I longed to see this highly anticipated presentation of a long-buried event in American history — the only violent slave uprising in the United States — especially in light of contemporary conflicts between the police and the black community that have been captured on smartphones, dashboard and body cameras, yet somehow always get reinterpreted to paint a completely different portrait than what seemed so obvious at first glance.
On the flip side, I railed against my own complicity in supporting the movie and, in so doing, perhaps propping up a system that failed a victim of sexual assault, championing someone (Parker) who would rather not discuss his own dark past and who, in the movie, fabricates an instance of sexual violence and uses it as the impetus that sparked a rebellion.
Could one man be both hero and villain? And who should decide?
What I discovered during the junket screening of The Birth of a Nation at the Toronto International Film Festival is that the real question — possibly the only one that matters in the end — is how does the film hold up under critical scrutiny?
Parker fully embraces the notion of Nat Turner as a hero, going so far as to elevate him to mythic status. We see Turner as a young boy (Tony Espinosa) participating in a ritualistic ceremony that foretells a great future for him as a leader. What we are supposed to take away from this is a sense of spiritual prophecy, but based on the current context of heroic portrayals onscreen, the early scenes feel like the initial scenes of a superhero’s origin story.
With his destiny decided, we merely sit back and watch him, waiting for the boy to grow into a man (Parker) who must still come into his own.
Turner has enjoyed the benefit of education — his mistress (Penelope Ann Miller) taught him to read alongside her son Samuel (played as an adult by Armie Hammer as if he forgot that he ever spent time playing with the young Nat) — but is only allowed to use it to preach a gospel that keeps his fellow slaves in bondage. He encounters, both as a youngster and in adulthood, a slave tracker named Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) who will serve as his nemesis.
At every turn, Parker’s Nat is the faultless savior, a Christ-like figure, until he decides he can no longer turn the other cheek. We certainly see and can appreciate the harsh realities of the antebellum South that could give rise to such reactions, but the execution of the narrative sketches this transition out in simplistic fashion.
Turner switches from sacrificial lamb to a superhero-like butt-kicker of slave masters, as if Parker prepared for his role by binge-watching Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and The Patriot.
It goes without saying that such broad and bloody strokes can justify the righteous indignation of an audience and a people hungry for justice and provide a rallying cry for a movement. But I wish this Nation had been borne rooted in the complex truth that even heroes experience dark nights of the soul. (Opens wide Friday) (R) Grade: C