Controversial ‘The Birth of a Nation’ sears with vitality, but question of art versus artist remains

"The Birth of a Nation" | Fox Searchlight Grade: B
20th Century Fox/Courtesy
"The Birth of a Nation" | Fox Searchlight
Grade: B

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Everything was in its right place for Nate Parker.

First, there was the record-breaking deal from Fox Searchlight — the producers of two of the past three Best Picture winners — at Sundance to buy the film in the week following #OscarsSoWhite. Then, there were the Audience Prize and the Grand Jury Prize wins at the fest. “The Birth of a Nation” appeared to have its sails set for Oscar domination in 2017. Every critic proclaimed that it was set in stone that the film would be nominated for, and even win,  Best Picture — an act of symbolic justice to ameliorate the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

But even more importantly, the film was supposed to right the wrongs within the modern social arena, cinematic history and the misconceptions of the subject of “The Birth of a Nation,” the heroic, enslaved man-turned-rebellion-leader Nat Turner.

As Black Lives Matter becomes more relevant by the day, with the depressing and never-ending acts of police brutality directed toward Black people — coupled with the fact that D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 cinematic stalwart “The Birth of a Nation” is still shown in film classes as a standard for the language of cinema — this new historical drama-epic was a wake-up call for the masses. It would show Nat Turner as a heroic figure in history who may have used gruesome murders to make his point. But during the 1830s in the deep South, what else was there to do for a large population of people being enslaved, beaten, silenced, starved and even killed all because of the color of their skin?

Then news broke regarding a trial in which it was alleged that director-producer-writer-star Nate Parker raped a fellow student in 1999 during his time at Pennsylvania State University. And while Parker has been vocal about his innocence, it has nonetheless tarnished the reputation he and the film built after its landmark Sundance opening.

How do you separate an artist from their art? That is the trouble that surrounds Parker and his directorial debut “The Birth of a Nation.”

On its own terms, “The Birth of a Nation” is a vital yet overly heavy-handed biography of a legendary historical figure. Parker the director rushes through Turner’s prodigious upbringing, in which he showed an instant aptitude for reading and reciting scripture to the downtrodden enslaved community, until he’s a charismatic adult who has earned some social standing for his abilities to bring communities hope through his powerful sermons. Of course, his master (Armie Hammer) makes a profit from Turner traveling around the local plantations.

Yet, Turner progressively realizes the full extent of slavery’s horrors. It is here that Parker’s film hits with blunt force. Parker doesn’t shy away from the brutality that marked antebellum America, the racism that burned through these awful humans for whatever little retaliation the enslaved people showed. The violence can’t be removed from the historical context. It’s through these gruesome — bordering on gratuitous — yet visceral scenes that Parker makes apparent the ideology Turner developed in his adult years, which culminated in the bloody rebellion and his public hanging.

As strong as the film is and as great as its cast is — which includes the exquisite, Oscar-worthy Aja Naomi King as Turner’s equally strong-willed and resilient wife — the film suffers from first-time director mistakes. It’s full of jagged edits, a sentimental and sweeping score and a total lack of subtlety in storytelling. The film rushes through Turner’s formative years straight to the violent, prolonged climax that runs nearly 20 minutes long. The film’s jump from heart-wrenching historical drama to graphic revenge action, coupled with a misplaced, swelling score, is a jarring tonal shift.

The key scene in “The Birth of a Nation,” the one that sets off Turner’s rebellion, is centered on the rape and brutal beating of his wife. It’s through this that Turner feels he can no longer let Black people be repeatedly brutalized by hateful white slaveowners, people with no intention of seeing equality for all. The catalyst makes sense within the historical retelling, giving Turner an immediate psychological trauma in which he can no longer stand wayside to the repeated atrocities.

But justifying the actions Turner made is tough — a Rorschach test for one’s own political leanings. There’s no denying that the ramifications of his actions can still be a needed conversation for today’s world. But that doesn’t change the circumstances outside the film, ultimately creating an uncomfortable scene in the film for externalities. Parker’s dependence on the rape for the justification of violent backlash is miscalculated.

It’s an unintentionally stomach-churning event. If one does see “The Birth of a Nation” — which is still essential for its charged retelling of an important moment in history that is ripe with political and social allegory — the art must be separated from the artist.

It’s confounding that the stories that seem to be the most timely on racial issues in America are the ones that delve directly into the horrors of slavery, such as the Oscar-winning films “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained.” Yet, somehow, these stories are the ones that hit the deepest, vital points in history that are central to the understanding of Black Americans and race in America now.

Art can never redeem its artist, but important art can stand with or without its creator.

“The Birth of a Nation” opens tonight at the California Theatre. 

Levi Hill is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].