Over the years, I have seen many standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival. But this past January, at the gigantic Eccles Theatre in Park City, I watched the only standing ovation I have ever experienced — anywhere — that took place before the film it was applauding even began. That film was Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation.” I felt like I understood what the ovation was about, and though I didn’t join in, I applauded in my heart.
Parker, a gifted actor who was on the rise but hardly a marquee movie star, had beaten the odds to direct, produce, co-write, and play the lead role in a movie about one of the pivotal events in African-American history. It’s a movie that Denzel Washington would have had to fight to get made — but Parker, a relative nobody, went out and did it. Simply having the moxie to bring this movie into existence was a heroic act, and the fact that it premiered in the heat of the #OscarsSoWhite imbroglio, against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter and the perception that murderous racism still thrived in America more than most of the culture was willing to admit, seemed not so much coincidence as karma. This was truly a movie of its moment. And since I had great admiration for Parker as an actor, I was eager to see what he had brought off in “The Birth of a Nation.”
I wasn’t a big fan of the movie. It had moments of grace and intensity (especially during the first half), but given the turbulent power of its subject — the violent slave uprising led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831 — I felt in my gut that something was missing. Yet the riptide of enthusiasm for “The Birth of a Nation” was undeniable. It was embraced as a landmark, one of those singular and impassioned indie game-changers, and when Fox Searchlight purchased the film for $17.5 million, I understood — and applauded — the wave that the company had set in motion. I could see the trajectory: The movie would come out, make $100 million, get nominated for a sea of Oscars, win some of them (maybe best picture), and kick open the door for a generation of black filmmakers. My sense was that even though “The Birth of a Nation” wasn’t the work of art that “12 Years a Slave” was (it was more like a very bloody TV movie), it would be far more commercial, because African-Americans had not turned out in great numbers to see Steve McQueen’s film, but this was a primal tale of fighting back, and that would be a significant lure, and maybe a healing one.
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We all know what happened after that. This summer, when it became headline news that Parker, as a college student at Penn State in 1999, had been brought up on rape charges (at trial, he was found not guilty), the storm of controversy that the case provoked seemed like the ultimate monkey wrench thrown into the movie’s potential juggernaut of popularity and acclaim. The purpose of this column is not to dissect the details of the charges, the issues of Parker’s guilt or innocence, etc. Yet it is not to draw some clean, false line between art and life either. As the controversy raged on, and as voices rose — especially on social media — to declare Parker a pariah whose movie should be boycotted, it suddenly seemed likely that the issue of the rape charge might completely derail the film. Its awards chances were written off almost by fiat, and so, in a lot of circles, were its commercial chances. For awhile, I couldn’t turn around without getting drawn into a conversation about the fate of “The Birth of a Nation,” and more than one of those conversations included speculation that the film might not even be released. That, it seemed, was how much the scandal was raining on its parade.
But now that the movie has come out — and I say this however well it does or does not do at the box office, however many awards it does or does not win — the notion that it’s a sadly limping indie blockbuster, a champion knocked out by the allegations from its creator’s past, has given way to a different reality. In one sense, the controversy over Parker obscures the movie, but in another sense it has become integral to the film’s aura, its reality, its politics. And that’s because “The Birth of a Nation” has always been a conduit for forces much greater than the film itself — a dynamic, ironically, reinforced by the aesthetic limitations of the movie. For the whole problem with “The Birth of a Nation” is that it doesn’t really, truly dramatize the story of Nat Turner. It presents it, as though it were a feature-length poster. It reduces the Turner saga to high-minded iconography surrounded by a gilded frame.
From the moment of that original standing ovation, the movie has been a placard that invites the audience to project things onto it, and that’s what’s still happening. Only now the possibilities for projection have multiplied. Is “The Birth of a Nation” The Fearless Indie Movie That Tells The Great Slave Rebellion Story? Or is it The Sleazy Cover-up Of Nate Parker’s Collegiate Descent? Or is it Parker’s High-Minded Act of Atonement? Or — if it does indeed get shut out of the awards race — is it the victim of a collective media conspiracy, a kind of #OscarsSoWhite: The Sequel? The question, at this point, isn’t even how good or bad, provocative or banal a movie like “The Birth of a Nation” is. The question has become: Which lens are you going to see it through?
The reason the movie was tailor-made to be a set of symbolic signifiers has to do with how Parker, as a filmmaker, fails to draw us inside the story he’s telling. For a while, the film’s portrait of the misery of slavery is vivid, and Parker stages one scene of plantation cruelty with a matter-of-fact horror that haunts you: A slave who refuses to eat gets his teeth hammered out, and we observe the seismic effect this has on Nat. It’s the seed of his radicalization. There are further steps in his evolution, notably the gang rape of his wife (Aja Naomi King) and the rape of Esther (Gabrielle Union), a character who never speaks. The reality that these last two atrocities add up to — that Nat has become the savior of the women around him — might be viewed as an attempt by Parker to address the lingering shadow of the 1999 allegations against him. If so, this suggests an obvious image calculation on his part.
Yet by far the most calculated aspect of “The Birth of a Nation” is the essential portrayal of Nat Turner himself. Yes, his metamorphosis from peaceful preacher to violent revolutionary is accounted for on paper, but what’s missing is the lacerating fury and obsession that drove this man to lead such a quixotic rampage. The Nat Turner of history, from what we know, was a proud outlaw with a touch of megalomania who dreamed of race war, but Parker’s Nat remains lofty and idealistic, with no inner conflicts or contradictions, no layers. Nat doesn’t execute the rebellion like someone opening death’s door. He does it like someone who’s organizing and staging a movie.
It’s that quality that winds up making “The Birth of a Nation” seem like a “cause” more than a soul-shaking drama. I went to see the movie a second time on its first evening show on Thursday night. The theater was about half full (with a roughly 50-50 mix of black and white patrons), but there was applause afterward, suggesting that many had gotten what they came for. The question going forward is: Now that it’s finally out there, can “The Birth of a Nation” have a life of its own apart from its status as an awards-bait contender, as the great hope of African-American filmmaking in the Black Lives Matter era, or as a movie that some view as forever tied to a toxic scandal? We’ll see as the weeks go forward, and as the feelings and opinions of the audience unfold. But my sense is that the word-of-mouth about “The Birth of a Nation” has already been cast, ahead of its release, as a grand series of paradigms: Which predetermined narrative slot do you think the movie falls into? And that isn’t just because those narratives are so overpowering. It’s because what’s onscreen isn’t strong enough to stand up to them.