A work of art is no more separate from the artist who created it than a historical event is from the individuals who shaped its outcome. To tell the story of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831, you cannot ignore Turner’s upbringing, religious beliefs and the political and economic reality that put him at the center of events that still resonate today. The revolt is significant for reasons beyond Turner himself—the surprising early success followed by the brutal suppression and horrifying anti-black backlash—but any examination of these events is incomplete without an understanding of the man who led it.
Turner is the focus of co-writer-director-producer-star Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a passion project from Parker and his first turn behind the camera. Every aspect of the film is packed with righteous anger, from the energetic direction to the unapologetic depiction of retaliatory violence. Even the title is provocative, named after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 lionization of the Ku Klux Klan, perhaps a nod to Turner’s knack for turning biblical verses, used by slave owners as propaganda to instill servitude, into battle cries for emancipation. At times, the film feels worthy of the description Woodrow Wilson bestowed to Griffith’s, that “it is like writing history with lightning.”
The Birth of a Nation
R, 120 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema and Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
Soon after the film’s opening at Sundance and purchase by Fox Searchlight, a disturbing fact from Parker’s past emerged, in which he and the film’s co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin, then roommates at Pennsylvania State University, were charged with the rape of a fellow student, for which Celestin was convicted while Parker was acquitted (supposedly because the woman had consented with Parker in the past). In 2012, the woman committed suicide, and further details emerged of the public harassment and humiliation Parker and Celestin inflicted on her following the charges.
Just as the revolt led by Turner was about much more than his personal ambition, The Birth of a Nation is an indication of a deep desire among audiences and artists alike to see American history re-examined in film from the point of view of the dispossessed. Conversely, Turner’s personal history and strategic decisions unquestionably affected the events that followed, while the fact that Parker made this film with such actions in his past demands examination.
A key event in the film is the brutal violation of a woman, and the constant dehumanization witnessed by Turner on other plantations spurs him into action. Parker clearly views rape as one of the worst atrocities a person can commit, yet his recent comments in the press have been less than clarifying and often frustrating, a fact that led co-star Gabrielle Union—herself a rape survivor—to publicly discuss her complicated reaction to these revelations while appearing in a film she called “important and groundbreaking.”
Union is right, and with her brave words and layered understanding of the film’s significance, as well as the circumstances surrounding Parker, she should be the one attending Q&A sessions in the director’s place. This is an important moment in American film history, one we can learn from: a film that demands to be seen about a subject that ought to be deeply examined in schools, created by a man who is the least deserving to represent either.
To say that art is inseparable from the artist is not as one-dimensional as suggesting that one should never watch something made by bad people. If it makes you feel something or consider a different point of view from your own, it’s worth considering, but good art is not an automatic pardon for actions such as Parker’s and Celestin’s. You can boycott The Birth of a Nation if you must—and there is more than enough reason to do so—or you can see it and consider the implications of the fact that two men who committed such an act of degradation also made a film like The Birth of a Nation.
Contact Kristofer Jenson at email@example.com.
Playing this week
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Bridget Jones’s Baby, Deepwater Horizon, The Girl on the Train, The Magnificent Seven, Masterminds, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Queen of Katwe, Storks, Sully
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-—The Touring Years, Deepwater Horizon, The Girl on the Train, Hell or High Water, Lo and Behold—Reveries of the Connected World, The Magnificent Seven, Masterminds, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Snowden, Starving the Beast, Storks, Sully