Reduce the public sphere to 140 characters or less, and our understanding of the world will change accordingly. Nuance and complexity will go the way of the Tamagotchi; yes, they still exist, at the bottom of many a sock drawer, but who cares? Melodramatic soundbites become the order of the day, and hash-tagged righteousness starts to supplant good reason. Think I’m exaggerating? Four words – Make America Great Again.
Nat Parker’s The Birth of a Nation arrives at what is possibly the most explosive time in U.S. history since the end of the Cold War, and particularly in relation to race. If Obama was tragically ineffectual, overseeing a society that still indiscriminately murders its black male citizens, then his successor is vulgarity unleashed – an unapologetic bigot who can count the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan as a devoted fan.
America’s recent nosedive into its collective Id aside though, The Birth of a Nation comes trailing controversies all of its own. Last summer, details re-emerged of how in 1999 Parker, along with Jean Celestin – a friend and credited screenwriter on Nation – were charged with raping an eighteen year old white woman. Parker was acquitted, but the details of the case make for disturbing reading.
Objective assessments of The Birth of a Nation’s value, whether as film, statement, agitprop, or whatever, thus feel impossible. First, the title – a bold re-appropriation of D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 paean to the Klan. Here though the focus is on Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. Intervening in both the historical and cinematic record, Parker wants to force Americans to confront their past’s bloodstained elisions.
If Nat Parker’s role as Nat Turner (in a film he has also directed, written, and helped produce) implies megalomania, it’s in accordance with the figure himself. Presented from the get go as a man with a spiritual destiny, Turner grows up on a Virginian plantation, where his ability to read leads him to preach to his fellow slaves. The good book proves incendiary however, planting the seeds of his ultimate rebellion.
The Birth of a Nation rides on the coattails of recent attempts to bring slavery to the screen. In place of Tarantino’s irreverence in Django, though, or the grandeur of McQueen’s 12 Years, Parker’s film is ultimately a safer affair despite its unflinching depictions of horrific events. Often ham-fistedly obvious in its thematic cues, the film ends up being something it should absolutely not be – forgettable.
If times couldn’t be riper for The Birth of a Nation, its desire to comment on such is muddled, a valiant if hobbled effort to force recognition of realities that coarse sloganeering, of whatever stripe, is unequipped to handle.