If you're a follower of film news, you might be under the impression that The Birth of a Nation, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at January's Sundance Film Festival, is a piece of radical filmmaking. It's not. It's a perfectly conventional movie, drawing on a century of tried-and-true techniques. Its antecedents include Kubrick's 1960 Spartacus, Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, and ... well, D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation.
The radical part is the heroes in this film are black, and the bad guys are white.
At Sundance, Fox Searchlight paid a record $17.5 million (the previous festival record was $10 million) for the release rights to this film, and they're not in the business of throwing money at some kind of formal experiment. They want a deeply sympathetic main character, evil villains for the audience to hiss, and clearly communicated scenes of redemptive violence. Actor-turned-director Nate Parker has delivered a rabble-rousing classic of the genre.
Of course, that genre also includes Mel Gibson's Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. While I'm drawing parallels, how about one between Gibson and Parker? Both are intense, laser-focused actors who took personal risk to earn the big chair. And both appear to be flawed individuals. Gibson is an Agnus Dei Catholic who tends to spew offensive language when he's drunk and confronted with cops. After The Birth of a Nation caught fire, it came to light that Parker was tried and acquitted for rape while he was an undergrad at Penn State. This has caused feminist activists to call for a boycott of the movie, whose appropriated title was clearly intended as a political statement of black liberation. They'll be hashing this one out in African-American and Women's Studies classes for years. I have always struggled with the question of where to draw the line between artist and work. Roman Polanski may be a predatory scumbag in his personal life, but damned if Chinatown isn't one of the best movies ever made.
Ultimately, meaning in art is created in the minds of the audience, and the meaning you take away from The Birth of a Nation is going to depend on where you draw certain lines. This is entirely appropriate, because Parker is all about drawing lines in the sand and daring you to cross them. The first and biggest line is obvious: You're either with the people who practiced human slavery, or you're against them. Parker chose as his subject Nat Turner, a man born into slavery who was taught to read the Bible as a child by a sympathetic white woman and grew into a Christian preacher. His master, Sam Turner (Armie Hammer), fell on hard times and rented out his prize chattel to spread the gospel of obedience to the slaves of Southern Virginia. But Nat Turner saw the horrors inflicted on his people, and, like Joan of Arc, had what he believed to be visions from God directing him to take up arms against his enemies. Then, like Spartacus, he set out with a small cohort to inspire a larger rebellion that would take down the oppressive system. (Parker makes the comparison explicit by wielding a gladius during the climactic battle.) But Spartacus had 80 trained gladiators whose exploits inspired an army of 100,000 that kept the full might of Rome at bay for almost three years; Nat Turner had a few dozen field hands who were trapped and killed in a couple of days. Turner knew his movement needed a martyr, and he was ready to give it one.
Parker also knows exactly what he is doing and executes with skill and precision on every front. He wisely cast Jackie Earle Haley, who has a perverse gleam in his eye as he nails the role of slavecatcher Raymond Cobb, the film's embodiment of white supremacist brutality. Where Gone With the Wind swept the all-corrupting system of slavery under the rug, Parker rubs it in Rhett Butler's face.
In Conan the Barbarian, the hero learns the answer to the "Riddle of Steel": It is not the strength of the sword that changes history, but the will of the one who wields it. The tools of propaganda are neutral; it is the mind that wields them that matters.
The Birth of a Nation