The Merit and Uncomfortable Politics of Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’

birth-of-a-nation

How do you support an artist that was involved in the sexual assault of a young woman? Do you support that artist at all? Should you? Is purchasing the art that this person created a concession of their guilt or innocence? Is lack of participation in that art a personal condemnation of their character? Is it bad for wanting to enjoy a piece of art by an artist that has an unsavory past? Is that past indicative of their character? Is that past indicative of their art?

Does it make you a bad person for buying a ticket to see Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation?

Let’s come back to it.

Judged on its own merit, The Birth of a Nation is an above-average biopic. The film is about Nat Turner, an educated slave who led a rebellion against slaveowners in 1830 Virginia. It spends an appropriate amount of time on each aspect of Nat Turner’s life: the marks that proved he was destined for greatness, his early aptitude for learning, his marriage, the relationship with his slaveowners. There are some post-modern flourishes, but none that go far enough to give the story much additional meaning. Most impressively, and to my relief, it avoids the biopic trope of using a present-day frame narrative to enlighten the story with modern context.

The nagging problem with most biopics is that they tend to be treated like documentaries, which forces them become a casual retelling of someone’s life instead of a dramatized version, the latter of which always better. Filmmakers seem to think that a remarkable sperson’s life will translate easily to film just because they were remarkable, but neglect to consider why is this person’s life story worth telling.

But Birth succeeds where a lot of biopics fail because it finds an angle in Turner’s story and builds its plot around it. It’s not just that Turner was destined for greatness, but his empathic nature drives him (and the conflict) to achieve something greater than is expected of him.

The film chronicles the many indignities of being owned by another human being, which, sure, is to be expected of a film with this subject matter. But this film takes care to show Turner’s reaction to each moment a black person is put down by a white person, and the range of moments is wide. He saves a woman (who would later become his wife) from being sold to men grinning and rubbing their crotches. He witnesses the mutilation of a man by his owner when he refuses to eat. He watches as a little white girl plays, holding a rope and tagging along a little black girl tied to the end of it. The film isn’t showing these things for the sake of painting a picture of a different time, or for an audience’s consternation, but as little catalysts for Nat Turner’s eventual rebellion.

Those moments, coupled with each time Turner is forced to preach to other slaves about keeping obedient to their masters for his own master’s profit, form a slow and strong build that influence his decision to rebel. He led a group of fellow slaves and free black men that killed 60 or so slaveowners, but didn’t have the fire power to succeed beyond one night of rebellion. Turner was hanged for his leadership in the uprising.

The last shot of the film is of a young slave boy (who betrayed Turner to his master) witnessing Turner hang to death. His face then morphs into an aged version of himself in a Union uniform, firing a bayonet directly at the camera. It’s a loaded moment, one that works for the context of this film and at the same time feels like a direct indictment of the “original” Birth of a Nation from 1915.

I keep finding myself referring to Nate Parker’s movie as the “new version” of the D.W. Griffith film, as though it’s a remake for a newer, more socially advanced, “woke” generation. It’s not, even though the reclamation of the title is a brilliant move, but there are parts that – arguably – could be. Even without the aforementioned modern-day narrative bookends to give the new Birth of a Nation context, its strongest theme is of action versus passivity.

All of those moments where Turner witnessed atrocities towards slaves were moments where any good person would feel compelled to intervene. But every time I mentally willed him, “Do something!” I realized that he couldn’t, because the likely outcome would mean at least pain, and at worst death. The young boy who told his master what Turner was planning, and the house slave who warned Turner a revolt would mean death on everyone, acted against their own best interests out of fear of the result. The mother to Turner’s master, a woman of great kindness, was also one of inaction. She witnessed her son become crueler the more he felt the need to prove himself a capable, slave-owning man in the county, but didn’t say a word to dissuade him.

Turner’s rebellion didn’t ignite a war, but that didn’t seem like the reason he did it. He reached a point where he decided that any action is always better than inaction, and when you consider that it’s hard not to think of the benefits of all the social activism happening in our 2016 world. The Birth of a Nation isn’t quite what the post-Sundance fanfare promised, but it’s a solid film of a man who’s story is worth telling.

So: Am I a bad person for buying a ticket to see Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation?

Well, I suppose if I thought so I wouldn’t have bought that ticket in the first place. But back in February, who didn’t want to see this movie? Birth‘s first screening happened very shortly after the Oscars, and a film written, directed, produced and starring a black man about a rebel slave felt like the perfect middle finger to the second year of #OscarsSoWhite. It was the perfect antidote to Hollywood’s race problem.

It didn’t take long after the film’s debut for Nate Parker’s 2001 rape trial to become public knowledge, and has been the topic of countless internet think-pieces since. Even though he was acquitted of the rape charges (though his friend and fellow Birth screenwriter, Jean Celestin, initially was not), his culpability in an act that may or may not have led a young woman to take her own life has been a part of the conversation around his film. But it’s ultimately not very different from any conversation people have had regarding the past indiscretions of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski or Michael Jackson or Kobe Bryant. It all comes down to whether we, as consumers of popular culture and empathetic members of society, condone the nefarious behavior of people by partaking in their product.

The problem is there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this moral dilemma, but the Internet tends to make it seem like there should be. I have a friend who was a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, as well as a pit bull owner and lover of animals, who disagreed so strongly with the organization’s decision to draft Michael Vick in 2009 that she vowed never to watch another Eagles game again. To my knowledge and her Facebook posts since, she never did. But does that mean the people kept watching Eagles games were bad people? Does Vick’s past discredit his athletic achievements?

Can you think of all those who mourned Michael Jackson’s death, lauding him a singular artist of which there is no other, without mention of his involvement in child abuse scandals? Or all those who celebrated Kobe Bryant’s recent retirement as the end of an era, consciously disregarding his rape allegations?

I recognize it’s harder for an athlete or a musician to have the same kind of public persona as a film auteur, who, by the nature of the medium in which they work, tend to create art that is similar to their own lives. This tends to be Woody Allen’s problem with the general public: he’s been accused of sexually abusing his adopted daughter when she was as young as seven. Even if those are just accusations, the reason it never really goes away is that he did have an affair with the adoptive daughter of his then-wife Mia Farrow, and almost all of his movies involve an older man in a relationship with a younger woman. In short, we as an audience are constantly reminded of his possible molestation.

And that is something we can’t help. The Birth of a Nation has two scenes where the rape of a woman was implied. The act of rape is not shown, and the scenes seem to be included as yet more examples of white people enacting their power onto black people, as opposed to something gratuitous. But still, Parker’s rape trial becomes what critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls “a mental asterisk.”

I do think it’s possible to enjoy the art of an artist who’s personal actions I find abhorrent, at the same time recognizing that mental asterisks may happen. To repurpose MZS’s position on the shot of the 59th Street Bridge in Woody Allen’s Manhattan for the purposes of this essay: Nate Parker made a fine movie, too bad he’s a possible rapist.

The best and most comfortable moral position I’ve found on Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation came from the activist group Fuck Rape Culture, who led a candlelight vigil at initial screenings of the film last Thursday. The group’s founder Remy Holwick said, “The goal tonight is to show that there is space in Hollywood to both celebrate a film that has incredible for promise for people of color advancing in Hollywood while simultaneously creating space for those that wish to honor victims of rape and sexual assault.”

I think it’s possible to have both.

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