I've written about my mixed feelings on The Birth of A Nation before. After the rape allegations of director Nate Parker's past resurfaced in August — along with the news that his accuser had committed suicide in 2012 — the question on everyone's mind, including mine, was: To support The Birth Of A Nation, or to not support The Birth Of A Nation? Back in August, I wrote: "I deeply believe this film is too important to our cultural discourse to boycott because of the irresponsible actions of its creator." After finally seeing a screening of the film, I'm here to report to you: I was wrong. Not about my opinions on Parker or his actions (that part hasn't changed a bit), but about the fact that this film is important for our cultural discourse. It's not. Frankly, it's not a very good film at all. So much so that after seeing the movie, I walked out of the screening-room relieved, a weight lifted off my chest that I no longer had to figure out how as a Black woman (and alumnus of the same college as Parker), I was going to separate this Black artist from this Black art. Because, in my opinion, The Birth Of A Nation was not art. You see, based on the subject matter and post-Sundance hoopla, I assumed the movie was going to be fantastic — poignant and inspiring, at least, if not a masterpiece. And there are indeed some redeeming qualities about this project. The adrenaline-quickening, soul-shredding depictions of the horrors of slavery that are often forgotten and conveniently left out of American history books brought me to tears twice. Parker's performance as Nat Turner was indeed convincing and goose-bumps-raising. And Aja Naomi King phenomenally gifted the movie subtle grace and humanity to make the character of Nat Turner's wife, Cherry, feel real. King's portrayal of a Black female slave who loves, hurts, feels joy — and then is raped, beaten, and demeaned was believable. It made me think hard about how different my life would be, simply if I were born in another time. But as a story and a collective work of art, to put it simply: Parker's piece fails. Miserably. There are two main reasons: The first is the artistic direction. It felt as though Parker was trying too hard to slap together as many creative styles as possible: There are "flashback" scenes of Parker in voodoo paint, intended to represent his ancestors in Africa. When he is whipped or goes through hard times in the movie, he sees a Black angel wearing white, a confusing and blurry figure that literally looks like an actress wearing a white dress. And then there is a painful, hard-to-look-at scene of Black bodies, dead, lynched. Playing in the background? Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit." As deeply personal and emotional as that song is, choosing to play "Strange Fruit" during a lynching scene feels trite — lazy, almost. And the score in general feels too heavy-handed; when Parker wants you to feel joy, it's ridiculously loud and sweeping; when he wants you to feel sorrow, it's predictably low and somber. It was so noticeable, in fact, that both my co-worker and myself commented afterward that the score was actually distracting.
As a story and a collective work of art, to put it simply: Parker's piece fails. Miserably.
The second reason I did not connect with The Birth Of A Nation was the actual story itself. For two hours Parker laboriously tells Turner's story with so many unnecessary plot devices: repetitive confrontations between Turner and his slave master; the too-long-drawn-out love story between Turner and Cherry; we don't even get to the slave rebellion until the final 45 minutes or so (if that) of the movie. That's right: the crux of Nat Turner's legacy, the two-day rebellion that Turner infamously said God led him to do, felt like an afterthought. So much so that when the movie ended, I felt stunned, and not because I was touched or affected, but because I was surprised at how abruptly the movie came to a close after all that time spent building up Turner's story. Upon some post-movie Googling, I figured out that my confusion was likely largely due to the fact that Parker's retelling of Turner's history is grossly inaccurate. In fact, some of the film's biggest plot points were simply figments of Parker's imagination: I could find no proof that Turner ever killed his slave master Samuel Turner, or that Turner's wife was ever gang-raped. As for the climax of the movie, when the rebels reach Jerusalem for a heroic shootout? Didn't happen. Turner and his rebels never even reached Jerusalem.
If Parker was going to stray so far from reality, he might as well have written a story about a completely fictional character.
For nearly a year we've heard Parker passionately discuss his need to tell Nat Turner's story; I feel like we've been duped. Of course embellishing facts for entertainment or to further a storyline is acceptable in movies, and no recreation of history will ever be completely accurate. But for a film like this that relies so heavily on one man's history, respect to his legacy feels more important than heartstring-pulling devices created to get people to buy movie tickets. If Parker was going to stray so far from reality, he might as well have written a story about a completely fictional character. The simple fact that the movie is not good — and I'm not alone in that respect — makes me wonder why the movie received so much praise in the first place. Even Fox rushed to invest $17.5 million. Could it be white guilt, the assumption that a movie about slavery is simply necessary, no matter how bad or good it actually is? All of this, of course, makes it easier to stomach the narcissism Parker has been displaying on his media tour to promote the movie, a media tour intended to put money in his pockets as well as Fox Searchlight's. Even assuming that Parker steadfastly believes in his own innocence, the reality is that he was still involved in a situation that ended in the death of a woman. There is the memory of a deceased person and an entire family involved; even if you are innocent, getting testy with Robin Roberts and blaming the media is not the answer. Remorse and humility are the answers, especially when you are voluntarily hopping on every television couch possible in America to convince viewers why they should go to see your movie. But good news for those viewers: You don't need to go see Parker's movie. And we don't have to stand up for something created by someone whose actions we don't agree with simply because it's historic, important, or a must-see. Because The Birth Of A Nation is far from a must-see. And I, for one, am glad about that.