The Birth of a Nation — The Controversy and the Movie Review

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By now everyone has heard of the rape charges writer, director, producer and star Nate Parker faced while at Penn State. For those that haven’t, here’s what happened in a nutshell. He was on the school wrestling team, and he and a teammate (who also co-wrote The Birth of a Nation), had sex with a woman who was passed out after drinking. There was a third guy in the room that left during this encounter. Parker had had a previous sexual relationship with her, which is probably why he was found “not guilty.” His writing partner was sentenced. When the victim didn’t show up in court the second time, for the sentencing phase, he was acquitted. These two then harassed the woman. She complained to school officials, who did very little. She then attempted suicide. Years later, she did kill herself. Her family claims it all stemmed from this incident.

When the story first broke, Parker showed a bit of remorse and was apologetic. Yet now that the story is getting bigger and bigger…Parker not only isn’t apologizing, he says he has nothing to apologize for. Really? He also claims he was “falsely accused.” Well, if that’s the case…why did he initially apologize and say he felt bad, and claim it was painful for all involved? If I were accused of a rape I didn’t do, I’d be screaming from the hills about my innocence. I might even sue her family members, who keep bringing the story up.

He now has five daughters and a wife, and likes to talk about his Christianity. He also likes to say this movie is important, and should be above all of his controversy. A lot of other people claim that because he’s black, people are attacking him. That’s idiotic, as we have attacked Mel Gibson [side note: Nate Parker thanked Mel Gibson in the credits; perhaps he should’ve also thanked Bill Cosby]. In most of the reviews I do for Roman Polanski films, I knock him. So, he should be attacked for this just like those white filmmakers [I used to attack Woody Allen, but it’s a lot more vague about what he actually did and investigators spent more than a year investigating, and claimed he never molested anybody].

The weirdest thing about how Parker is handling this controversy is…how poor a job he’s doing of it. If Fox Searchlight spent $17 million for this movie from him, you’d think they’d be telling him to either not do press, or what exactly to say about the situation. Lying about it is hardly the right move. Getting angry at Anderson Cooper and Robin Roberts for bringing it up…doesn’t garner sympathy for your cause. I’ve already thought of two or three ways in which he could’ve apologized, blamed alcohol and bad decisions, and even possibly donating a million dollars to a rape foundation.

Another thing Parker has said in a few interviews, is how this movie is important today, because of how the police treat black people. First…you have to believe that’s actually a problem. A lot of these police shootings end up being deemed justifiable. Second, if his logic is about what is happening “in today’s society”…talking about his rape of a passed out woman is also relevant today. Colleges seem to continually have a problem with this. We see famous people dealing with it (currently Bill Cosby and NBA star Derick Rose). Yet he doesn’t want to discuss this. He just feels sorry for himself, that he’s being “attacked” regarding his past.

So, if you have no problem supporting a guy that took advantage of a woman passed out from booze — in a worse manner than the Stanford swimmer — and you’re curious about a movie regarding a slave revolt, here’s my review, without Nate Parker’s controversy influencing how I felt about the movie.


When The Birth of a Nation premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the buzz was immediate. A bidding war ensued with studios, and it was the most money paid for a movie there (Parker turned down a bigger offer from Netflix, because he liked the distribution and Oscar possibilities with Fox Searchlight). The film has received standing ovations at the film festivals it’s played, which is understandable. It’s a powerful ride, and a very powerful ending.

Yet this probably isn’t the movie that’s going to get the Academy Award nominations, despite the fact that Academy members would love to solve the “diversity issues” that have plagued the awards show the last few years. It’s just not a great movie, and with the controversy, it won’t be the film Hollywood rallies behind.

My girlfriend was curious about it, as she became interested in slave-revolt leader Nat Turner after learning about him in high school. She went to the library back then to read everything she could find about him. I was curious, since I knew nothing about him.

Nate Parker (Red Tails, Beyond the Lights, Non-Stop) is terrific as Turner. He’s got a big career ahead of him as an actor (if studios aren’t afraid to hire him). As a director…not so much. The film didn’t have a single original scene in it. In fact, many times you could foresee the next scene. It was that formulaic. The overplayed symbolism didn’t work, and many themes and characters were underdeveloped.

Turner was a Virginia plantation slave who learned to read. The scenes of him as a boy, initially stealing a book, were well done.

A woman (Penelope Ann Miller) teaches him to read. Mostly the Bible. He eventually becomes a preacher, and when the plantation is on the verge of collapse, the slave owner (Armie Hammer) starts making money by using Parker as a preacher at other plantations. The owners figure this will help keep their slaves in line.

Turner falls in love with Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King), and soon marries her. After she’s raped, along with the atrocities Turner had been seeing when visiting various plantations, he starts to get enraged. The Bible suddenly has different meaning for him. He’s thinking more “eye for an eye.”

When another woman is raped, this seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s also what really ticked off my girlfriend, who worked at a rape crisis center for years. She said, “He’s more concerned with showing the men’s faces, and how it affected them!”

In real life, the family of the rape victim of Parker’s, feels it’s exploitative and bizarre, for him to use a rape scene to illicit sympathy. Other critics have complained because that incident never happened in the real Nat Turner story. Yet I can let that slide, because when you’re showing all the atrocities of what these slaves went through — to combine a few things that may not have happened to this specific one, seems like a small thing to complain about. For example, my research found that Turner was also owned by a few different slave owners, not just one.

You wonder what it was in Turner’s nature that got him to rise up against all this, when so many other slaves didn’t. My girlfriend told me in the books she read, they slaughtered women and children in the uprising, not just the male slave owners. Again, I can let that slide. I did wish Parker showed us a bit more of the motivation behind Turner; especially when many felt that Turner was probably crazy. He claimed that he always had visions. Those are shown here in weird ways. The few times an angel comes down, it looks cheesy. My girlfriend leaned in and said, “That looks like something out of a Nicki Minaj video.”

Another critic said, “Did he buy those wings at one of those costume stores you see in the mall?”

You don’t want stuff like that in your film distracting from this type of narrative, although Parker made this without a big budget. He spent over seven years making it, spending lots of his own money.

It would’ve been nice if there was a scene or two with Turner grappling with his religious convictions and decisions. This would go a long way to humanizing the protagonist. Instead, we’re just given close-ups, and a lot of literal dialogue. A little more subtlety could’ve gone a long way here.

There were certainly things in the movie that worked. A few scenes with Turner preaching in front of slaves can be powerful to watch.

And how can you not get goosebumps hearing Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” while a boy is hanged from a tree? Although having the butterfly land on his chest was a bit much.

Cinematographer Elliot Davis is great and so is the cast. The writing and direction…not so much. It’s an overwrought film that’s unevenly paced.

So, Nate Parker wanted to take the title The Birth of a Nation away from D.W. Griffith. He did that, and he’s a better actor than Griffith. Griffith was the better filmmaker. Both seem to be equally deplorable as people.

This review isn’t based on Parker’s personal life, though. As a film, it’s probably not worth your time. If you’re interested in Nat Turner’s story, there are books out there.

This gets 2 stars out of 5.