Film review: "The Birth of a Nation"

Photos Courtesy of Flickr Nate Parker stands at the podium during the premiere of "The Birth of a Nation" at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Photos Courtesy of Flickr
Nate Parker stands at the podium during the premiere of "The Birth of a Nation" at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.


How important is an artist’s life in relation to their work? On this topic, I’ve found myself becoming hypocritical, granting exceptions to one public figure and not to another for committing similarly heinous crimes.

While it can be forever debated whether seeing Woody Allen’s movies is anti-feminist, or enjoying Chris Brown’s music condones domestic violence, a real dilemma arises when a scandal precedes someone’s first major work.

Such was the case with Nate Parker, the star, writer and director of “The Birth of A Nation.” Prior to the release of the film, news broke of a sexual assault case against Parker from 1999, after which the accuser took her own life.

It was a devastating blow to the public that had been anxiously awaiting the film (myself included) and a blow to the film itself, which ended up making far less money at the box office than anticipated — just $7.1 million according to the New York Times.

Despite my disappointment, I decided to see the film and try to judge it based on its own merits, thinking, “Maybe the movie is good enough that I can forget about who Nate Parker is and what he’s done.”

My consensus? The cinematography is beautiful, with sweeping wide shots of fields and forests and haunting close portraits of every character. The story documents the life of Nat Turner, from his master teaching him how to read the Bible as a child to his eponymous rebellion in 1831. The narrative is still strikingly and unhappily relevant today.

There are scenes of graphic and shocking violence against slaves, one of which was so visceral that I almost had to leave the theater. The movie is upsetting and hard to watch, but that was obviously its intention. It’s an important film, and an important story, and no one seems to know that better than Parker himself.

But, for all the positive attributes of the film, there is an arrogance intertwined with every shot. It’s no coincidence that the beginning scene of this movie is devoted to making sure the audience knows how special and important Parker’s character is. In a surreal series of visions, a young Nat Turner meets tribal ancestors in the dark and foggy woods. He discovers that the mysterious markings on his chest mean he is destined to be a great leader.

It’s a fair reflection of the real-life Turner’s prophetic dreams, but as other characters continue to heap endless praise onto him (and by extension, Parker) the “chosen-one” rhetoric gets to be a little monotonous. This says less about Parker’s opinion of Nat Turner as a historical figure and more about Parker as a historical figure in training.