Creating a film amounts to a series of choices. In bringing the life of slave rebel Nat Turner to the big screen in The Birth of a Nation, director Nate Parker can choose to embellish one fact over another, to rewrite history, and even to invent plot lines for the sake of drama. Spectatorship constitutes an equally if not more important series of choices — you can choose to watch or not watch, to accept or reject a filmmaker, to praise or judge his or her work.
But choice is the province of the living. Within the framework of historical dramatization, the only people denied decision-making power are the historical subjects themselves. They cannot choose their legacy, nor how they’re represented, nor who drags their corpses into the present. Nat Turner cannot choose his re-animator.
In the case of The Birth of a Nation, the vapors of history are Nate Parker’s to shape. The film begins with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” In the opening scene, young Nat Turner’s (Tony Espinosa) messianic future is divined by mud-caked spiritualists, who say he bears the mark of a prophet and leader. His prodigious tendencies are nurtured by his white mistress Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), who teaches young Nat to read the Bible. However, he cannot escape work as a field hand. During his first cotton-picking venture, he pricks his finger — the spray of his blood across the white bulbs becomes a prescient omen of what’s to come.
Once Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is a grown man, his master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and a local reverend offers Nat’s talents as a preacher to neighboring plantations, as a balm for disconsolate slaves. While Nat is no stranger to the casual violence of the South’s peculiar institution, the brutalization he witnesses on these excursions does not conform to the principles of servility he exalts in his sermons. At one plantation, he observes a cruel master knock out a slave’s teeth with a hammer and force feed him. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, a teary-eyed Turner can barely maintain his fragile smile as he’s forced to deliver another sermon to the tormented slaves — this time, his cry to praise god crescendos to a fierce apogee.
It’s a turning point for Turner. After his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is savagely beaten and raped by a trio of slave catchers led by Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), Nat hopes his master will come to his aid. At a dinner party later that week, another slave Esther (Gabrielle Union) is given as a party favor to one of Samuel’s guests, to the horror of her husband Hark (Colman Domingo). The cumulation of these savageries, including a scene where Nat himself is whipped on a post for baptizing a white man on his master’s property, plants the seeds of insurrection as Turner waits for a sign from God to avenge the wretched of the earth.
The film is most successful in its well-earned final climax. The gathered slaves embark on a rampage of vengeful carnage, beginning with slashing the head of the serpent itself, Nat’s master Sam Turner. As dawn approaches, the rebels muse on how their mornings would normally be spent preparing for a day in the fields, but not today — instead they march on to Jerusalem. It’s a moving respite before the final battle, a breathtaking display of spiritual triumph for the mutinous slaves.
Besides the magnificent climactic scenes, the film is equally powerful when capturing the sobering barbarism of the white oppressors, who lynch and slaughter hundreds of slaves in response to the rebellion, which unfolds to the haunting tune of Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit.” It’s an obvious musical cue, but an undeniably effective one. Strong performances throughout save the film when it tips into heavy-handedness. The film hinges most on Parker’s portrayal of the legendary rebel-prophet; his ragged grin, his slowly collapsing sycophant’s mask, and his feverishly delivered sermons make for an unforgettable performance.
However, The Birth of a Nation is certainly not without flaws. It bears much of the clumsiness and on-the-nose dramatic flourishes of a first-time filmmaker, such as an ominous bloom of blood inside a stalk of corn, or the melding of two dripping candles after a marriage scene. More unfortunate is its utter failure to create a coherent understanding of its female characters. While King, Union, and Esther Scott, who plays Nat’s mother, turn in strong performances with what little material they’re given, the rapes of Cherry and Esther are explored solely in relation to how it affects their husbands.
Given that Nate Parker was charged with raping a female student at Penn State in 1999 — for which many people are boycotting the film — this failure to sensitively imagine how rape affects its victims typifies more than just a deficiency on Parker’s behalf. It’s also indicative of a myopic tendency to not only ignore women’s participation and importance in representations of revolt, but also to re-victimize them. Though Parker wanted to start a conversation about the long history of black oppression, he unwittingly ignited a fierce and much-needed debate not only about rape, but about how male filmmakers represent it in their work.
Would Nat Turner be grateful for this attempt at cinematic immortalization? Nate Parker has expressed that he wanted to avenge the dead. In some ways, given Parker’s troubled history, it feels like tethering Nat Turner to a different kind of historical ownership. Despite the flaws of the film, the successes — plus Turner’s own powerful endurance in our cultural memory — outlive the weaknesses. The rewriting of historical iconography, beginning by reclaiming the The Birth of a Nation title from D. W. Griffith’s racist homage to the Ku Klux Klan, has sparked not only an essential return to Nat Turner’s legacy, but a crucial discussion of women’s mistreatment and exclusion.