Published Sep 14, 2016Nate Parker's writer/director/starring turn triple-threat The Birth of a Nation turned heads at Sundance with its provocative subject matter (more on that controversy later) and extreme violence, especially while riding the wave of #OscarsSoWhite; it's certainly easy to get swept up in the film's of-the-moment signifiers and politics. Controversy aside, though, The Birth of a Nation is a downright mess, the victim of a terrible script rife with formulaic conventions that go nowhere.
For the most part, The Birth of a Nation is formulaic Biopic 101, tracing the life of Nat Turner, the true-life slave who led a bloody rebellion in Virginia, 1831. The film follows Turner from childhood until death, but without a strong thematic throughline, they tend to feel episodic; with only the slightest of arcs, we watch Turner go from an educated house slave to a preacher to a raging leader, never getting inside his head or understanding him as a person.
While Parker was fine as a reliable supporting actor in films like the underrated Beyond the Lights, Parker's artistic (re)"Birth" as an auteur is a classic case of hubris by a director with surprisingly little to say. Of course, Parker himself plays Turner; in an utterly transparent attempt at a star-making turn, he frames himself in generous, expressive closeups and gives himself all the best lines while leaving the rest of the cast to tread water.
It's a canny piece of cinema as mythmaking, a film that worships its subject and portrays them as a near-god like figure, never finding fault or a simple humanity in the character we're supposed to be rooting for. At a Q&A following the film's TIFF premiere, Parker stated he wanted this film to contribute to the unheralded legacy of Nat Turner, to shed light on a figure essential to understanding one of the darkest points in American history, and while his aim is admirable, the movie doesn't do his goals justice.
Solid supporting players like Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo and Jackie Earle Haley are left to fend for themselves, with barely a defined character between the three of them. At best, they come off as cartoons; at worst, they serve only to reify Turner's character as a mythological figure. So many of Birth of a Nation's problems stem twofold, from both a lacklustre script and Parker's unclear goals as a director, which combine to produce something that barely feels like a cohesive narrative and more like a collection of interchangeable, forgettable vignettes.
But it's the violence of the film that tips it over into disaster territory. Birth of a Nation is the most graphically violent Oscar contender in recent memory, revelling in gory material like beheadings and teeth-smashing that put Django Unchained to shame. The violence feels exploitative, calling attention to the cinematic craft and makeup involved in staging these sequences rather than to the horrors of slavery itself.
Less muddled and more unforgivable (and here we go with the Parker controversy) is the film's despicable treatment of rape. Twice in the film, women are sexually assaulted specifically as a motivating narrative tool for the male characters. Lacking any kind of narrative of their own, Parker treats the women here like objects that serve only to follow the men in their lives and advance the plot. In 2016, rape onscreen needs to be handled in a much more respectful way, if at all — not as a contrived genre trope to convince the male characters what they do is right.
Leading up to the film, Parker's previous sexual assault charge was thrown into the spotlight, so naturally, those involved with the film have encouraged audiences to "separate the art from the artist." While that line of thinking always depends on context and the stories an artist is telling, here, it's made impossible by the film's depiction of rape. The Birth of a Nation is an outright mess, and should be forgotten about as soon as possible.