‘The Birth of a Nation” arrives in theaters with more than its share of history in tow. As a dramatization of the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Va., the film joins a line of artistic endeavors to keep alive a story that has long been threatened with being forgotten. As a corrective, of sorts, to portraits of enslaved people as passive sufferers of their fate, the movie offers a depiction of resistance at its most bracing, brutal and bruisingly relevant.
Nate Parker, the young actor who stars as Turner in “The Birth of a Nation,” also wrote and directed the film, which he pointedly named after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie, widely lionized as a masterwork of nascent film grammar, and justly derided for its virulent racism. But what Parker clearly meant as a subversive nod to cinematic history has taken on an extra layer of bitter irony over the past couple of months, as the director has addressed charges that he and Jean McGianni Celestin, who shares a “story by” credit with Parker, sexually assaulted a classmate in 1999, when all three were students at Penn State University.
Parker was acquitted of rape charges, while Celestin served time in jail before having his conviction overturned. Their accuser took her own life in 2012. Some viewers, appalled by Parker’s alleged behavior and his most recent attempts to put the episode behind him, have already decided to boycott “The Birth of a Nation.” Those who decide to see the movie will encounter a stirring, if uneven, passion project that radiates the zeal and commitment of its subject, even as it reflects the unsteadiness of a first-time director whose ambitions often exceed his abilities.
“The Birth of a Nation” begins during an African initiation ritual, during which the young Nat Turner is recognized as possessing “holy marks” (he has three raised moles in a straight line down his chest) and prophetic powers of wisdom, courage and vision. Growing up on the Turner plantation, Nat becomes friends with Sam, the owner’s son, and he sometimes steals books from the big house’s library in order to teach himself to read. Sam’s mother (Penelope Ann Miller) begins to tutor him in the Bible, and in time Nat is delivering precocious fire-and-brimstone sermons to his friends and family. “You’re a child of God,” his father tells him. “He gave you a purpose.”
As adults, Nat and Sam (played by Armie Hammer, unrecognizable behind grimy dental prosthetics) enter into a Faustian bargain wherein Sam hires Nat out to preach to other enslaved communities in order to defend slavery and prevent an insurrection. With careful, sometimes ploddingly schematic deliberation, “The Birth of a Nation” shows Turner migrating from a theology of obedience to one of wrathful liberation, both by way of holy visions (at one point he sees blood oozing through an ear of corn) and the violence and cruelty that his gifts are being exploited to uphold.
Parker spares little in showing the audience how unspeakable that violence could be. “The Birth of a Nation” includes an excruciating scene of a hunger-striking field worker being force-fed after having his front teeth knocked out, and Parker stages the vicious gang rape of Turner’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) as one of the chief incidents that incited Turner to revolt.
That series of events doesn’t precisely jibe with the historical record. But it establishes the context of terror and impunity that might well have informed Turner’s decision to lead a guerrilla army on a two-day rampage, during which dozens of white property owners and their families were mercilessly killed. It also invites inevitable questions about the opportunistic use of sexual violence as a narrative device, a gambit Parker and Celestin repeat in a story line featuring a character, played by Gabrielle Union, who silently endures sexual violation at the hands of one of Sam Turner’s drunken friends.
As regrettable as the real-life echoes of these scenes are, they also make “The Birth of a Nation” more of a luridly conventional revenge tale than an exploration of a man wrestling with his messianic destiny and a disquietingly evolving faith. In Parker’s portrayal, Turner is an oddly passive, uncomplicated figure, witnessing the injustice around him and finally being pushed to the brink — but remaining something of a cipher until his torturous martyrdom. Although the climactic assault and its punishing aftermath are powerfully graphic — there’s a haunting shot during which the camera dollies back to reveal a sickening tableau of lynched black bodies — it teeters uncomfortably between “Braveheart” action and wide-eyed horror-flick gore. (The lurid effect isn’t helped much by a heavenly-choir-heavy musical score.)
As a genre exercise, “The Birth of a Nation” is an odd, fitfully effective hybrid that seems to be fighting with itself in terms of tone and narrative approach. It lacks the formal elegance and technical rigor of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and the shrewd revisionism of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” favoring the more banal rhetoric of easily digestible historical drama, spiked with startling touches of symbolism, such as when Turner is visited by a white-clad descending angel. While these scenes are firmly grounded in an established vernacular of African American film, especially Spencer Williams’s “The Blood of Jesus,” they feel hokey and stylistically discordant compared to the rest of the movie.
“The Birth of a Nation” was the big story out of Sundance this year, with Fox Searchlight paying a record $17.5 million for Parker’s rapturously received little-indie-that-could, clearly in hopes that it would be an Academy Award contender (and, not incidentally, an antidote to the chronic exclusion that inspired the #OscarsSoWhite campaign). The ensuing controversy regarding Parker’s past — which has continued unabated this week, as he’s been interviewed on “60 Minutes” and “Good Morning America” — has put even more pressure on a movie that seems destined to be judged on everything but its own merits.
The truth is, “The Birth of a Nation” is a flawed but fairly compelling chapter of the American story that powerfully resonates with how that story is playing out today. After nearly two centuries, Nat Turner has finally made it to the big screen in a good movie that never should have been burdened with greatness in the first place.
R. At area theaters. Contains disturbing violent content and some sexuality. 120 minutes.