There is no real way to talk about Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" without first addressing some of the controversy surrounding it. Parker co-wrote, co-produced, starred and directed the film (about Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831), appropriating the title from D.W. Griffith's 1915 Ku Klux Klan propaganda film. The original film is widely considered to be Hollywood's first "blockbuster" and promoted a resurgence of the hate group.
Parker had a fellowship through the Sundance Institute and began working on the screenplay for the film back in 2009. For years he was told that a film about the Nat Turner slave uprising wouldn't be produced because movies with black leads don't play well internationally and because the story of Turner himself was too controversial.
In 2013, Parker invested $100,000 of his own money to hire a production designer and scout locations, eventually securing enough of the $10 million budget to begin production in earnest. When the film finally premiered at Sundance, it was greeted with a standing ovation before a single frame of the movie was projected. The hype on this movie has been deafening ever since.
In August, it came to light that there were rape charges against Parker (and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin) from 1999. Parker was acquitted in 2001 and Celestin's conviction was eventually overturned. The accuser committed suicide in 2012.
Once this came to light, the conversation about the film changed. Instead of it being a film that could inspire change about race and systemic oppression, it became another flag along the path of a rape culture that doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. Especially during this election cycle with a presidential candidate who not only promotes rape culture but has been a large part of it for decades, there is another conversation that's being had about gender, equality and the systemic oppression of women.
The film is only decent, with excellent performances by Parker, Armie Hammer as his owner and Aja Naomi King as the love of his life, Cherry. But there's nothing in the film that raises it above a typical biopic—other than the fact that it's an important story that needed to be told. There are scenes of uncommon power and brilliance surrounded by flat moments a more seasoned director could have made sing.
The message of the film is stronger than its execution and if it inspires real discussion and change surrounding topics of racism, rape culture and systemic oppression of women and people of color, then it should be seen based on those merits alone. Separating the art from the artist can be difficult, however, especially when it comes to filmmakers like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski—so there's no right side when it comes to viewing Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation."
Can we support an accused rapist's film about slavery and oppression without supporting rape culture? There are no easy answers, only more difficult questions. Maybe we just have to take some solace that they're even being asked in the first place.
"The Birth of a Nation"
Dir. Nate Parker
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX