If there’s a single good thing that has come out of the real-life rape controversy that has come to hang over Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” it is that is forces one and all to dispense with the Sundance hype attached to this bio-drama and regard it on its own terms.
And it’s not bad, a solid “Hollywood” history of the 1830s Nat Turner slave revolt in Virginia with a love story, religion, injustices, torture and murder, a movie with middling, un-affecting acting but high artistic pretensions.
Parker (“The Great Debaters”) plays Turner, a Tidewater Virginia slave taught to read by a patronizing but semi-sympathetic landowner (Penelope Ann Miller).
The film’s genius is in showing Turner’s acceptance of the “slavery’s in the BIBLE” argument of the whites until the murderous, inhuman cruelty of the system and the injustice of it all has him finding his own Bible passages to condemn the slave holders and justify revolt among the slaves themselves.
Armie Hammer (“The Lone Ranger,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) is the son of the plantation family that owned Turner, people who fell on the more humane end of the “peculiar institution” spectrum as it was practiced in the 19th century South. But even though Samuel Turner (Hammer) grew up with young Nat and tolerates his familiarity, and efforts to get better treatment for all the farm’s slaves than local tradition expects, and even helps Nat rescue a tortured young slave (Aja Naomi King) whom he eventually will marry, at the end of the day, “Massa” is still the white man who must be feared and obeyed.
Nat has been told, almost since birth, that he’s “a child of God. You’ve got PURPOSE!” And as he turns his Bible education to sermons, he makes himself even more useful to the master. He can “help folks get their slaves to calm down a bit” with his lay sermons about obedience, “God’s will” and such.
And so he does, until the horrors of the life he and his wife live and the system he witnesses — barbaric cruelty and gruesome violence, much of it meted out by the murderous slave hunter Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley )– drives him to preach revolution and dream of freedom won by vengeful, righteous violence.
Parker does better at suggesting the shell shock Nat seems to wear as his lot in life. His urgent pleas go unheeded as his owner is peer-pressured into letting visitors enjoy the forced sexual favors of slave women. Parker is not as good at capturing the mesmerizing preacher that history tells us Turner was. Like Armie Hammer’s early-career efforts at depicting Billy Graham, it’s his lack of command in the pulpit that lets Parker down.
The supporting cast is bolstered by the presence of a whispering, acquiescent butler/house servant played by Roger Guenveur-Smith, and Miller, Hammer and Haley, but undercut by too many other players who were simply all Parker could afford on an indie film budget. Mark Boone Jr., in particular, seems miscast –a beefy bearded character actor who suggests nothing of a wily, conniving, argumentative and racist-to-the-marrow preacher.
The handy comparison here is to the Oscar-winning “Twelve Years a Slave,” and “Nation,” an attempt to re-brand that title from the racist KKK history D.W. Griffith filmed during the silent era, is nothing near as moving or impactful. Flashbacks to Nat’s childhood and his nightmarish “African in America” dreams show more ambition than plot necessity. The acting isn’t as good, the writing not as sharp, the directing pedestrian at best.
And then there’s the elephant in the room, a beast from the same herd that hangs around Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and child abuser Victor Salva’s films. That would be the after-Sundance disclosure that the director/writer/star of the film Parker and his college pal, co-writer and apparent partner in rape, Jean McGianni Celestin behaved callously, despicably and almost certainly criminally in sexually assaulting a drunken coed whose life spiraled into drugs and an early death (so her family says) due to a Penn State University crime and the half-hearted prosecution of it.
Critics can and must separate the art from the artist, and on its own merits, “The Birth of a Nation” has value and is worth seeing, even if the breathless early praise seems to owe more to the high altitude and pack mentality of Sundance Film Festival hype.
But it is the audience that will ultimately pass judgement on Parker, Celestin, and their movie, a court of public opinion that will decide if the $17.5 million Fox Searchlight bought it for (pre-rape allegations) is money down the drain. And it’s simply not good enough to forgive and make anyone forget the filmmakers’ pre-movie sins.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity
Credits:Directed by Nate Parker, script by Jean McGianni Celestin and Nate Parker. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 2:00