The Birth Of A Nation Review: Did Nate Parker Use Nat Turner To Redeem His Own Sins?
There was no standing ovation. No round of applause. No grateful cheering. There was just silence. Silence as each audience member watched credits roll across a black screen filled with accolades, initially crediting one person: Director, screenplay writer, producer Nate Parker. The name flashed over and over again. I sat in the dark theater wondering if there was some alternative ending that everyone was anticipating because we all seemed to be waiting for an answer as to what we had just seen.
Yes, I am a Black woman, someone who paid her hard earned money to see The Birth Of A Nation directed by a man, Nate Parker, who for the past few months has been publicly scrutinized for a rape charge of which he was acquitted.
As Nate Parker continued to address the controversy, my thoughts still remained unsettled. While watching the film my mind couldn’t help but think about the circumstances surrounding Nate Parker and the other accused party, the film’s co-writer, Jean Celestin. It’s also hard not to acknowledge how even after the incident, these two men came together to contribute an arguably valuable piece of art—seemingly as if their pasts had not already collided in a chaotic way.
On the surface level, without the criticism and controversy regarding the sexual assault case, the film was relatively good. The movie depicted the traumas and assaults that occurred during slavery in riveting, cinematically, impressive ways. The characters, both historical and fictional, were executed well with subtle acting and not overly pathos-filled dialogue—with the exception of Nat Turner’s sermons. I personally believe that had the film debuted without the overshadowing rape allegations, it would have possibly made its way to the Oscars.
While some reviews have trashed the film for its historical inaccuracy and faulted Nate for adding certain incidents for theatrical effect, specifically the addition of multiple rape scenes, the assaults were presented as a catalyst for the rebellion. Arguments have been made that these scenes were added unnecessarily and exercised far too much creative control, especially considering the director’s past. I think a possible reason for Nate including the assault scenes was to illustrate how Black women’s bodies were used as vessels rather than a beacon of strength as the foundation of both the Black and White family.
If you take The Birth Of A Nation for what it is at its basis, a piece of work created by someone who took a historical event and exercised creative license, then it’s hard to agree that the film deserves the condemnation it has received. In any depiction of historical events made for TV or film, facts and events are often omitted or revised based on the directorial vision of the story.
But if you take the film with all of its baggage, the backlash and controversy, then criticizing it is multi-faceted. For instance, whites used Christianity (specifically Nat Turner’s sermons) to instill fear and ultimately control slaves. Nat would preach at different plantations, under slave master’s watchful eyes, and his work (for which he was paid) helped to save his own master’s farm. There was a juxtaposition of Christianity with the idea of God as a savior or as a tormentor. That parallel to Nat(e) relegated him as Jesus Christ. This was especially conveyed in his walk to a public hanging — similar to Jesus’ crucification and the road to Calvary– but there was something off with this final scene. Nat(e) being persecuted as a result of the rebellion seemed like an overzealous attempt to redeem the actual Nate Parker from his past. That somehow if viewers watched how heroically Nat(e) incited a rebellion–the first slave rebellion– that we would all bow down for his talent and give him the accolades he deserved. Was that the purpose of telling Nate’s— I mean— Nat’s story?
If Nate Parker truly wanted to tell the untold story of a man who ignited the first slave rebellion, why not use another actor? Why use his face to depict the story? What was the underlying purpose of having the audience view his vindication and ultimate salvation on the big screen?
Had we not known or even paid attention to the troubling past of Nate Parker, maybe the general reception of the film would be more positive. But as a woman and a person who truly feels there are a lot of hidden truths to the issues surrounding the allegations, I won’t be surprised if the film doesn’t achieve the success that was initially expected. The baggage of Nate Parker in this depiction, unfortunately, weighed down the legacy of Nat Turner.