How ‘Important’ Is The Birth of a Nation Really?

It’s the latest slavery narrative to receive critical and popular attention, but Nate Parker’s film isn’t the original powerhouse many hoped it would be.

Fox Searchlight

One of the words most commonly used to describe Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is “important.” The word seemed less fraught when the movie, which tells the story of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, debuted to notable acclaim at Sundance early this year. But it took on a different feel when college rape allegations against Parker and his co-writer for the film emerged during promotion for the movie. And then again when news broke that the alleged victim killed herself in 2012. “Important,” now, is being deployed to help sway those who remain critical of or conflicted about Parker, The Birth of a Nation’s writer, director, and star.

Amid the strong criticism of Parker that’s ensued, there have been many calls to prioritize the significance of the movie over any personal feelings about the filmmaker. Again and again, cast members, critics, and supporters have suggested both explicitly and implicitly that The Birth of a Nation should be seen because it’s an “important” work. But what exactly makes a film required viewing despite personal ambivalence or objection? What does “important” mean?

The Birth of a Nation is important insofar as any narrative about slavery, race, or other parts of America’s dark past is. Films in this tradition are valuable because they demand a continued reckoning with a history that’s too easy to forget or gloss over, and they also explore how the impact of that past continues into the present. But the fact that The Birth of a Nation is representatively important as a movie doesn’t mean that it’s good cinema, or even a necessary addition to the genre of stories about slavery.

One oft-cited meaningful feature of the film is its historical grounding in one of the bloodiest slave rebellions on record: Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia, which resulted in the deaths of over 50 white people and the subsequent killing of hundreds of blacks as retribution. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t spare its audience the powerful and disturbing images of beatings, force feedings, and a litany of other atrocities that supposedly motivated Turner’s rebellion. Nor should it. But aside from its status as one of the deadliest, there’s not a widespread consensus among historians that Turner’s uprising had critical, long-lasting consequences for the institution of slavery or the people who benefited from it.

Further, little is actually known about Turner himself aside from a few sparse historical accounts and the confessional he wrote prior to his execution—a document that deserves scrutiny since it was produced by a white attorney during Turner’s confinement and published after Turner’s death. This knowledge vacuum would make it difficult for a filmmaker (or anyone) to fill in the blanks about Turner’s life and motivations without significant editorializing. And Parker does editorialize, choosing to include scenes and tropes that viewers may bristle at: at least two instances of the brutalization and rape of black women and the portrayal of Turner as the constant, morally unambiguous hero.

But even as a narrative about slavery in general, The Birth of a Nation doesn’t break any new ground that would make it essential viewing. Rather, the movie retreads some of the same emotional and visual terrain as Roots, 12 Years a Slave, and Django Unchained—and in some cases it does so less artfully. There are familiar tropes: the at once beautiful and devastating scenery of antebellum plantations with lush foliage being toiled by black bodies bent under the watchful eye of an overseer. The frustrating Uncle Tom house slave and the benevolent white benefactor. The commonness of unspeakable cruelty.

Parker, it seems, is trying to convey the strength, bravery, and agency of slaves in the face of unimaginable atrocities. Turner’s motivation—solidified during his travels as a preacher to his fellow slaves—becomes answering a moral call to stand up for his brethren and himself. A reading of Turner’s own words reflects far more religious fanaticism than moral imperative. Much of the heart and feeling infused into The Birth of a Nation are of Parker’s own design. And even in these instances, intended to humanize an enigmatic historical figure, the film offers heavy-handed moments of gravitas that come off as trite rather than moving.

Despite prominent examples of stories about slavery, the subject—along with the broader issue of race—is still dramatically under-explored and underrepresented in Hollywood, leaving plenty of room for more incisive history-based accounts. In this context, it’s little surprise that The Birth of a Nation received the premature praise and attention it did. Many Hollywood studios, critics, and moviegoers looked at the movie and saw a rare and thus seemingly vital project—one driven by the singular, ambitious artistic vision of black American man. It was hard not to respect the apparent passion behind the film, which was made with much of Parker’s own money and with the help of other black actors and writers.

Together, these factors created astronomically high expectations for The Birth of a Nation itself. The promise of a groundbreaking work about slavery and a heroic portrayal of a revolt brought to Hollywood by a rising black filmmaker was enticing. But hopes for the movie and its creator hit a snag as Parker faced scrutiny for his past and criticism for how he handled questions about the rape allegations today. Amid growing disappointment with Parker’s personal life, emphasis on the film’s importance as new addition to the canon of works about black America has only intensified.

Though The Birth of a Nation does little to artistically differentiate itself from its predecessors, it remains a special case of a black person telling a story about black people and, at least at Sundance, receiving applause for it. The Birth of a Nation finds itself in the middle of a national conversation where many who are frustrated with persistent racism and inequality are willing to embrace a tale about the oppressed rising up against their oppressors at any cost. The movie’s reappropriation of the title of one of the most sweeping works of racist propaganda ever created in order to tell the story of a slave uprising is, perhaps, its most clever victory.

But for those who’ve said they hoped to view and enjoy the the film in spite of mixed feelings about Parker and his past, that may prove difficult. The fact remains, The Birth of a Nation is a movie that is solely about Nat Turner, told from Turner’s largely fictional perspective. It is envisioned, written, editorialized, and performed by Nate Parker. Ultimately, the movie isn’t sublime nor can it transcend the personal flaws of its creator—its own failures as a work of cinematic art simply don’t allow it to. Whatever importance The Birth of a Nation does have lies solely in its status as an uncommon film that forces viewers to confront the horrifying and courageous history of black people in America.