The Implosion of ‘The Birth of a Nation’

I saw The Birth of a Nation today. Once heralded as instant Oscar front-runner, the film collapsed in on itself by virtue of its director/star Nate Parker’s past rape allegations and a general review consensus of “meh.” I was excited when the news broke that there was enough faith in The Birth of a Nation to warrant such a hefty advance film festival purchase. The beautiful trailer landed on the internet, an awards season release date was assigned, and it seemed like the momentum was all but assured. The story of Nat Turner is one of significance, one that should be told and one that hadn’t been done justice to yet. Sadly, it still hasn’t.

As a film, as a piece of art meant to educate and inspire, it never reached where it wanted to go. While the ending of the true story isn’t one of hopefulness, it stands to reason that the more than a hundred years of hindsight and perspective mixed with today’s volatile racial climate should have left me with a cannonball-sized weight in my stomach. Rather, it felt too heavy-handed, lingering on moments intended to force-feed you the emotions you were supposed to feel. I’m not really here to review the film, you can do that yourself, but all I could think about while watching Nat Turner’s final moments on screen was about the personal life of the actor portraying him.

While he was a sophomore in college, Parker and his roommate were accused of raping a fellow student while she was intoxicated and unconscious. A doctor corroborated that she’d been assaulted and during a taped a phone call between her and Parker, he confirmed that he and his roommate had sex with her. Though he was charged, he was eventually acquitted on all four counts brought against him. His roommate, who not so coincidentally shares a story credit on The Birth of a Nation, was convicted of sexual assault and received a small prison sentence. He appealed the case on grounds of ineffective counsel and the conviction was overturned. This has served as the vindication Parker’s carried on his shoulders while he became an actor and nabbed roles in films like The Secret Life of Bees, Red Tails and Beyond the Lights.

The reason I wasn’t able to separate the actor/director’s past from the film he was creating was within the film itself. A brutal, historically inaccurate rape was written into the plot, something that at best showed an outrageous lack of taste. Maybe it’s just me, but if I had been accused of doing something as vile as sexual assault, I would ensure that I distanced myself from anything that may evoke or be even tangentially related to a similar act. Even if he was one hundred percent innocent, fabricating rape for the purpose of stirring your protagonist to action doesn’t make palatable sense. This is a historical biography of a man who experienced a million injustices worth revolting over; there was no need to create a flimsy catalyst rather than using the ugly truths of his life to spur him to action.

I remember watching the 60 Minutes interview Parker gave, waiting for a sign of remorse that never materialized. He maintained that he was innocent and that he had nothing to feel guilty about. He did however say he had done something morally wrong. So to recap, he knows he did something morally wrong, but also he knows he has nothing to feel guilty about.

That’s where my biggest issue with him came to light: The arrogance he put out into the world was so off-putting, it was impossible to get past. Do people who allegedly do awful things deserve second chances? Yes they do. And he even admitted he did something morally wrong. But that was never accompanied by an apology or any attempt at restorative justice.

Restorative justice is something that could have reshaped the entire narrative of this man’s life. After his trial and the ordeal he went through, he could have spent his time and efforts ensuring the education of other young men to prevent similar occurrences in their futures. He could have become an advocate for education about and against sexual assault on college campuses. Especially once he became a figure in the public eye, this would have made his voice all the more resonant and his impact all the more defined. But he didn’t do anything except deny he did anything wrong and arrogantly repeat that he didn’t have anything to apologize or feel remorse for.

After a small bit of research, it turns out that a rape allegation isn’t all Nate Parker has been carrying with him. When he was doing press for the film Beyond the Lights, he stated that in order to “preserve the black man” he would not be willing to portray gay characters. He also said he would not take gay roles because he considered them “emasculating.” Also, buried by Penn State was the claim by another woman that Parker had exposed himself to her the year after the rape allegations. Parker stayed on the wrestling team and the university did nothing about it. So it’s difficult for me to watch a film full of so much historical poignancy and not feel like the message had been somewhat tarnished.

I’ve seen the original The Birth of a Nation from 1915. When it was released, it was widely considered to be the greatest cinematic achievement to date. Ripe with political commentary, it’s also full of black men portrayed as rapists to white women while normalizing the KKK as literal white knights coming to save their women from the black man. Ava Duvernay’s focused and enlightening documentary, 13th links the release of the original Birth to fueling the resurgence of the KKK into mainstream American culture. While Parker set out to right the wrongs of the first Birth, and his film (as well as Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave) portrayed black women being assaulted at the hands of white men, his did so at the expense of his public integrity.

I also question why filmmakers continue to lean on the slave narrative in order to tell the stories of black people. The black people in my life are some of the most compassionate, intelligent, complex, multi-faceted humans I know and love. I hear this complaint from them and I have to agree, I’m tired of black stories being told that are confined to the small box of the slavery of yesterday, as opposed to empowering stories of engaging Americans of today. Then again, to immediately contradict myself, these post-election weeks have shown the animal nature of some racist Americans, proving the necessity of such films. While they aren’t the people who will pay the money to go see a film about slavery on basis of their backwards bias, until we as a culture have rectified the fact that all people are people on the same playing field, we will have to harp on these stories.

I wish The Birth of a Nation had been better. If I’m being honest, I wish it had been made by anyone else besides Parker. Nate Parker is a good actor and shows the promise of being a good director as well. There were some visually beautiful moments in the film and those can’t be denied, but the cloud that hovered over the film tainted its effectiveness. This is a time when artists need to be making newly affecting, life-changing art and I wish this had been.

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