Birth of a Nation, the (2016) - Its Complicated
| My reaction and emotions around the film The Birth of a Nation are complicated. Watching the film one can't help but wrestle with the issues both presented on the screen and arising behind the scenes. It is both a powerful drama and flawed execution. There are many who want to write it off simplistically and I believe there is a great deal of politics behind those motivations. But in the end it's a complicated experience which remains rich and remarkable which still could have been so much more.
In case you aren't aware, writer/director/star Nate Parker has been accused on sexually assaulting a young woman almost 2 decades ago. He continues to profess his innocence saying the sex was consensual and he relies on the fact that he was acquitted at the criminal trial. The young woman eventually committed suicide. Everything about this story is tragic and speaks volumes about our culture's struggles with the plague of sexual assault.
I understand there are those who feel they can't watch a film made by a rapist. There are those who feel that his acquittal absolves him of the crime. There are those who feel the accuser's claims are to be respected no matter what. There are those who feel a film should be appreciated for its merits alone regardless of the artist behind it and his crimes. I understand all of this and wish the answers were as simple as those statements make it seem. I am torn in many directions as I approach the film The Birth of a Nation.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, easily compartmentalized to be dealt with simplistically. I bring a lot of understanding to my viewing of this film. I understand what qualifies for an acquittal, especially regarding sexual assault charges, doesn't remotely mean that no sexual assault was committed. I know that based on all that the public knows about the victim's claims there is no reason not to believe her. I know it's possible for someone to do something horrible and still remain a human being whose contributions can still be appreciated. I know how victims can be re-victimized as their attackers' crimes are minimized. I am keenly aware of the way criminalization of men of colour has been used to marginalize that population while white rapists go unpunished. I understand white rapist film makers win Oscars for their work with no repudiation. I understand the lasting effect of sexual assault on its victims and the stigmatization they face, especially when their claims have been dismissed. I understand a film is the work of hundreds of artists who contribute in many substantial ways and I don't believe in the auteur theory of film making which places all the praise or blame on a single director for the success of failure of a film. I understand how impossibly nuanced and difficult an issue like this is. What I can't understand are those who are able to easily take one black and white side against the other.
As I said, all of this is complicated and I wish I could easily separate the art and the artist, praise one and condemn the other, or just write it off without having to weigh all of it. I just can't. A big part of why I can't is the way the film's story and subject matter speaks directly to the problems I have listed above. Perhaps if the film had been about something completely unrelated to the stratification of race and gender, of the use of violence by the powerful to maintain their status, perhaps it would have been easier not to focus on the connections between the real story and the fictional one on screen. But that's not the case.
I use the word "fictional" on purpose. This film is based on historical events but remains, like all films based on historical events, highly fictionalized. There is no other way to do it. One simply cannot tell an accurate historical film, not in the literal meaning of the word. Film makers have to make choices about how they get the truth of the story across through the medium they have. And it is often in Parker's choices that he stumbles, distracting from the power of his film.
Parker chooses to include an important scene about rape, a scene which most believe is the least historically accurate in the entire film. There are scenes which speak to the power dynamics between the assaulted and their assailants, men and women, people of colour and white people. All of this keeps your mind keenly on the troubling fact that the film's visionary, an artist who should be praised for this work, may be guilty of something horrible, something he doesn't appear to have repented, something directly connected to the crimes he is portraying on the screen. Is he trying to find a way to express his regret through the addition of these themes? That doesn't feel honest. The way he frames his own character, the role he plays in his own film, as the hero, the savior, he isn't taking responsibility, he is casting himself as liberator. Is he using it as his continued denial of wrong doing, by vanquishing the victims he puts onscreen? His artistic choices speak so directly to the controversies of his past, watching the film you can't even let yourself mindlessly forget. It is pushed into your face.
I've read commentary that critiques the film for shutting down the voice of women, especially woman of colour. I think there is merit in that argument. Parker's story focuses on men and on how men are responsible both as protectors (the men of colour who rebel and safeguard their women) and as persecutors (the white men who leave the far more sympathetically played white women guilt free). The role of women in The Birth of a Nation is to be victimized, be saved, and then stand and cheer. This would be troubling in any film but is especially troubling here in a film by Nate Parker, cowritten by the man who was also charged with the same sexual assault all those years ago.
But the film remains far from a failure. Parker's simple yet beautiful narrative structure does two things very well; lay a compelling indictment of complacency by all those living in a system which marginalizes populations, and exposes the horrors of marginalization and slavery, the exploitation of people for the benefit of others. Both are shown very successfully. He tells an incredible story, a compelling one, powerful to watch.
He also does it judicially. He doesn't fetishize the violence of slavery. There aren't lingering shots of whipping, of beating, or rape. In fact, he always pulls away from the violence. We are shown what is going to happen and the camera consistently pulls up just out of view. I found this very effective for both driving home the brutality, showing us the true extent of the evil, while also not reveling in it or sensationalizing it for our "entertainment." He balances this brilliantly.
His narrative is also successfully structured to show us the ways we participate in violence, in slavery, even when we aren't the one with the whip in our hands. Even when we treat people politely, kindly. His stealing of the title from one of the most famously racist movies ever made, is an ironic and brilliant move which speaks to the foundations of American life and culture. The film doesn't blink from this and puts it forefront. It would be hard to walk away from this film without feeling the pressure of that.
But his choice to be "creative" with the facts of Nat Turner's life is another weakness. While I am not beholden to the idea that historical films should only show historically proven "facts," as I just don't believe that is possible, I do believe the choices you make to embellish your story say a great deal about the story you are telling. It's about finding the way to convey the truth of the history in a way that fits the medium, not alter that truth. Nat Turner's story is compelling enough that it needed far less of Parker's revisions. In fact many of them take away from the story, especially in light of Parker's own struggles. Often his choices feel self-serving and don't necessarily help his narrative or the moral of his story.
The Birth of a Nation works but in a flawed way. It is beautiful and pushes its audience to look in a mirror, but perhaps doesn't look in that mirror itself. I respect the choice some are making not to see it but I believe that without seeing it one cannot judge it. It is not the masterpiece that many felt coming out of its explosive debut at Sundance but it is a powerful, flawed film which reaches for a goal, almost makes it, and raises many more questions for us to think about.