In 1915, thousands of people swarmed the streets of Boston to protest a screening of The Birth of a Nation. The film garnered immense critical praise for its visionary cinematography, enthralling audiences across the nation with its suspect depiction of how the Civil War and Reconstruction led to wanton oppression of white southerners. It portrays black characters — often played by white actors in blackface — as intellectually inferior and sexually depraved. It reaches its climax when a group of Klansmen, armed with weapons and on top of horses, confront black people outside their homes to prevent them from voting. It then ends with a happy wedding, heralding the Klu Klux Klan as the white knights who restored order to a once-lawless town. It's no surprise, then, that the NAACP, not even a decade old at the time, helped plan mass demonstrations against the movie, decrying it as historically inaccurate and wholly racist. Yet the beleaguered film went on to be a box office smash, raking in millions of dollars despite the rallying cry against it.
Just over 100 years later, another film with the same name has stoked praise and controversy. But this time, the message couldn't be any more different. This year's The Birth of a Nation is about Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher from Southampton County, Virginia, who led one of the bloodiest slave revolutions in U.S. history. The ill-fated insurrection, which resulted in the deaths of around 60 white people, spread mass panic throughout southern supporters of slavery, who killed nearly 200 free blacks and slaves in retaliation.
Visually, the film is a masterpiece. Much like the historical figure, The Birth of a Nation's Nat Turner continually experiences dreamlike visions proclaiming his heroic fate. The movie begins with a youthful Nat immersed in a foggy wilderness where he encounters a tribal ritual. There, a birthmark on his chest is revealed, and the spiritual head of the group says those markings mean Nat is destined to become a prophetic leader. The scene is eerie but captivating, painting Nat almost like a Christ figure within the opening moments.
We see Nat as a young boy with a childlike innocence, playing hide-and-seek with his master's son, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and receiving reading lessons from Samuel's mother, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). Nat then grows into an adult preacher enslaved under the law but respected for his fiery sermons from the Bible, the only book he was taught to read. Under the direction of Samuel, his childhood friend-turned-master, Nat (Nate Parker) travels to different plantations in an attempt to subdue resistant slaves with Bible passages condoning slavery. But Nat begins to question his actions as he witnesses the horrific degradation slaves endure from their masters, soon believing that God is calling him to lead a bloody rebellion against the practice of slavery.
Parker, also the film's director, runs through Nat's wide array of emotions with ease. He displays loving tenderness with his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and an uneasy sense of admiration for Samuel that devolves into a righteous hatred. Most impressively, acute confliction is etched upon his face, the guilt of encouraging his fellow slaves to "obey your earthly masters" weighing heavily on his spirit. Nat is a proud man trapped between obedience and rebellion, and Parker expertly conveys that tumultuous duality, even at the moment of his character's death by hanging after the revolt crumbled.
King herself delivers a masterful portrayal of Cherry that drips with raw emotion. She begins as an erratic woman damaged from her experience at a slave auction but sheds her standoffish veneer as she falls in love with Nat. She soon becomes the foundation of Nat's bravery, and the duo finds itself enveloped in a love so powerful that, when they are together, not even the harsh reality of their world can pierce it. King's best moment comes as Cherry lies on her bed, recovering from the gang rape she suffered, and Nat informs her that he will spearhead a rebellion. Her face deformed and her breathing labored, she looks up at Nat with the only smile she can muster. It's a moment of loving support and anguish — one of those rare scenes in a movie when time seems to stand still as you are enveloped in a vortex of pure feeling.
But the film is also fraught with troublesome aspects. Nat is displayed as infallible, the only person with enough guts and wit to rally the slaves around a single banner. It's easy to get caught up in the heroic nature of the character. It feels quite formulaic, though, stretching the legacy of the true Nat Turner to such a point that he seems inhuman, almost like a 19th-century superhero rather than an ordinary man with his own shortcomings standing up against America's most depraved institution.
The true issue with the character, however, has less to do with The Birth of a Nation itself and more to do with its lead actor and director. News of rape allegations against Parker in 1999 recently resurfaced as he moved into the spotlight. The victim's brother, identified only as Johnny in a Variety article, revealed that his sister committed suicide in April 2012 and that the alleged rape played a major role in her mental downturn. Parker has denied the accusations. The news is troubling enough, but it's made even more problematic when considering that multiple fictional rapes were added into The Birth of a Nation, including one of Nat's wife, to help spur his radicalization against white oppression. The film was an immersive, jarring experience — but that wasn't enough to distract from the awkward reality that hung like a spectre over it.
There's no denying that the controversy muddles The Birth of a Nation's otherwise impassioned message. But it's still an important film. Movements for racial equality, cyclical as they are, have bubbled back up to the forefront of our political discourse. Black Lives Matter has become a rallying call for a new generation of activists and the end of Barack Obama's historic presidency nears. In that context, the film — a fearless recording of Nat Turner's legacy as one for black uplift — could not have come at a better time. It serves as an answer to the 1915 The Birth of a Nation, pushing back against the film's unsettling revision of 19th-century racial injustices. But most importantly, The Birth of a Nation stands as a reminder of our nation's ugly history, prodding us to realize our historical place in the larger scope of struggle endured by our nation's black community.