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Where to start with The Birth of a Nation? It’s nearly impossible to separate the film from its offscreen context—from the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which it functions as a strong rebuke of, to the allegations of rape against its director, writer, and star Nate Parker (which he denies). But the inability to view the film outside of its racial and gender politics is partly borne of its flaws. Some movies are so gripping and well-told that they transcend their context. The Birth of a Nation isn’t that. It’s a passion project by a talented young actor that deserves to be seen, even if its writing and directing duties should probably have been passed off to a more experienced filmmaker.
The story of Nat Turner, a slave who led an armed uprising in 1831 that killed around 60 people, is often minimized in U.S. history textbooks, but its arc is familiar. At heart, The Birth of a Nation is a superhero origin story, in which a young, marginalized figure learns to embrace their powers and enact justice. The inciting incident comes when Turner is a young boy, and he witnesses his father being caught by a cruel slave-owner (Jackie Earle Haley) for stealing food. With a gun to his head, his father manages to escape, killing one of his would-be executioners in the process. Nat, watching from behind a tree, learns a valuable lesson: it’s okay to fight back.
As he grows up, Turner learns that he has a gift for rhetoric. A deeply religious man and powerful orator, he is rented out by his master (Armie Hammer) to other landowners who want Turner to preach the bible to keep their slaves in line. It’s a double-edged sword. At first, Turner cites the scripture that requires slaves to be obedient to their master, but the word of God is malleable. After witnessing further atrocities against his family and loved ones, he finds inspiration for vengeance in the same place.
It’s a difficult film to unpack because its victories lie mostly off-screen. When The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance in January, it received a standing ovation before it even screened. That’s how desperate audiences were for a racial story that ignores white saviors and celebrates black power, especially when the #OscarsSoWhite controversy was making national news. But months later, the film still represents racial progress but its flaws come into greater relief.
It feels like Parker was learning on the job. Early scenes, like the one in which that slave-owner comes looking for Turner’s father to finish the job, are poorly put together. Shots don’t match, and Parker eschews some of the basic rules of editing. But as the story builds, so do Parker’s skills. The rebellion sequence is a taut, explosive piece of moviemaking, and a late shot of a butterfly that pulls back to reveals a series of bodies hanging from tree branches is among the most hauntingly artful of the year. If Parker had a chance to remake the entire film—knowing now what he didn’t then—it would surely be a more consistent, effective work of art.
But critiquing Parker’s artistic choices only get us so far. Those pesky questions of context remain, and they overpower the film itself. How do we weighs its racial victories versus Parker’s alleged sexual assault, especially since Turner’s story—as told here—turns on a rape? You’re likely to spend more time thinking about such questions than you do about anything the film intended to say. Whether that’s fair or not isn’t for me to say, but The Birth of a Nation isn’t good enough to make us forget the offscreen context, and that’s nobody’s fault but Parker’s.
The Birth of a Nation opens Friday at theaters everywhere.