Forgiveness is tricky and personal, and you can’t be blamed for not offering it. Buying a ticket to Nate Parker’s slave-revolt drama The Birth of a Nation demands at least some measure of it. As you’ve probably heard, while a student at Penn State, Parker — the film’s star, director and screenwriter — was charged with the rape of an 18-year-old woman. At question was whether the sex, which followed a night of heavy drinking, was consensual. Parker was acquitted in 2001; his friend Jean McGianni Celestin, who receives story credit on the film, was convicted in the same incident, but that conviction was overturned on appeal years later, after witnesses had moved away and prosecutors declined to retry the case. Despite the acquittals, the details remain sickening, and as the case is retried in the press today the victim is not around to speak up for herself — she committed suicide in 2012.
For all that we have The Birth of a Nation, in theaters across America, a film fully deemed important before anyone outside of Sundance had seen it. (Parker’s past, though in the public record, did nothing to quell distributors’ bidding frenzy.) It’s a passion project, an indie stab at an African-American Braveheart, a bluntly potent revenge thriller spun from the truth of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion. Of course it’s important, whether or not you can stomach paying to see it. It’s everything Hollywood has failed to put on our screens for a century. It dares not to soften black anger or question its righteousness. It is, as Woodrow Wilson might have it, history reclaimed with lightning.
It’s also a movie in which Parker the actor, in the Turner role, gets to stare down with cool mightiness accusations that he has stained a white woman’s honor. Later he acts out vengeance against a rapist himself. Such incidents belong in a Nat Turner story, of course, but in this Nat Turner story they disquiet for more than their depiction of American cruelty and injustice. The historical has bound up with the personal in ways beyond Parker’s control — in ways that lessen the impact of the history.
Parker crafts scenes, a little generically, to suggest the four-century continuum of white brutality against the flesh and spirits of African Americans, but he also crafts them, in that Mel Gibson way, so that they seem to emphasize his own moral certainty and indomitability. He’s playing a folk hero, not a person, a man beset by cowards, touched by God and never in doubt about what he must do next to achieve the impossible. Since Parker’s the writer/director/leading man of a movie the money men didn’t want until it was made, it’s no surprise that his portrayal is at least convincingly zealous.
So if you forgive him enough to see it, The Birth of a Nation offers a troubling tangle of the personal and historical. But above all else it’s commercial, an entertainment of purpose and some power. Parker knows how to juice a crowd. As the plantation life he depicts grows increasingly violent, I heard gasps and “oh no”s even from the audience of unpleasable critics that I saw this with. As a storyteller, Parker is good at the things that Hollywood is still good at: the anticipation of violence; scenes of beating and humiliation; men shouting the truths that motivate them; the pleasures of retribution; men forging bonds through such bloody work. The rousing scene of Turner’s army of freed slaves each stating what he would be doing at that moment if he were still on the plantation almost makes up for the earlier horror-film jump scares.
Most shots, some of them striking, are designed to communicate one big and simple feeling; the film grows more convincing as the feelings it’s after get more upsetting. There’s some nice montage work, especially of plantation labor, and Parker and editor Steven Rosenblum adeptly handle leaps in time. But when it turns to love, The Birth of a Nation becomes quaintly pretty: A wedding-night tableau of Turner and bride Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is all nude silhouettes, a wash of moonlight and a pair of candles melting into each other. (Maybe write the happy couple some dialogue?) The occasional stabs at richness or complexity don’t amount to much — Turner’s first victim, his longtime master (Armie Hammer), crawls across the hardwood of his own home as he bleeds out, and we see between him and Turner a gently lit cross in a stained-glass window. Is Parker suggesting God’s approval? Indifference? Is this a vision of Turner’s? Of the dying man’s?
Turner’s conception of God is a mystery in The Birth of a Nation. Celebrated as unusually intelligent, young Turner (played by Tony Espinosa until Parker takes over) is given a bible by the plantation owner’s sister (Penelope Ann Miller), and soon he’s taken to preaching sermons for slaves. We get spirited glimpses of these, but Parker exhibits no curiosity about what the child believes or how he reconciles the good news of the gospels with the everyday reality of his own bondage. Later, when Parker’s Turner is dispatched to sermonize at neighboring plantations, the slave preacher hits upon the idea of bible stories as code. It’s an invigorating scene, with Parker shouting about kings and iniquities, and the white overseers gazing on in confusion. But it’s also unclear: Has there been a shift in his belief in the word, or has there been a shift in his understanding of its usage?
This matters because the film — and Turner’s life — turns on a question of belief. Fascinatingly, it’s also a question of forgiveness. The incident that inspires the beating that stirs in Turner the conviction to kill his master plays out quickly and strangely: A white sot has been barred from every church in this patch of Virginia, and, scared for his soul, he at last turns to the famous slave preacher to ask to be baptized. Parker’s Turner agrees to this with his usual steely purpose.
Just seconds of screentime after his introduction, the sot gets to wade in the water, washed of his sins by a man without freedom. This is a profound choice on Turner’s part, and a profound risk, an act of grace for which he will suffer greatly. But The Birth of a Nation doesn’t give Turner a moment to weigh this decision, to show us what it means to him or to let us know that he has considered the consequences. Turner absolves the man that nobody else will, and the writer/director/actor doesn’t bother to dramatize why. That’s how tricky and personal forgiveness is — even Nate Parker can’t wrap his head around it.