The Art vs. the Artist: Can ‘Birth of a Nation’ spur us to forgive?

July 23, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley on 'The Birth of a Nation' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Back in January, Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” became the early favorite for Best Picture 2017, winning Sundance as the great indie hope for an antidote to last year’s “Oscars So White” protests, inking the most lucrative studio deal ever out of the festival at $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight.

My, what changes 10 months can bring. By late summer, an old controversy had resurfaced over rape accusations against Parker and screenwriter Jean Celestin during their time as collegiate wrestlers at Penn State in 1999. Parker was acquitted on all charges, Celestin was convicted of sexual assault in a ruling that was overturned four years later, and the accuser tragically committed suicide in 2012.

“Birth of a Nation” star and rape survivor Gabrielle Union reacted in The L.A. Times: “As important and groundbreaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly,” while Parker himself hit “60 Minutes” with a tone-deaf interview: “I was falsely accused … I went to court … I was vindicated. I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here … Her family had to deal with that, but as I sit here, an apology is — no.” WTOP was set to interview Parker in person on Sept. 26, but the press tour was canceled.

And so we’re left with the age-old debate of whether to separate the art from the artist, as we have for other famous filmmakers. Sexual assault allegations have also plagued visionary directors like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, yet we still hold up “Chinatown” and “Annie Hall” as masterpieces, just as we still worship Michael Jackson’s music and rank “The Cosby Show” among TV history’s best.

Is it possible to admire the Huxtables, dance to “Thriller,” gasp at “Rosemary’s Baby” and laugh at “la-di-da” while we condemn their creators’ personal-life controversies? For many, the answer is simply no. But for the sake of discussion, how does “The Birth of a Nation” hold up on its own merits?

Set in 19th century Virginia, the biopic explores the causes of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton. It chronicles Turner (Nate Parker) from boyhood to adulthood, falling in love with fellow slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King), working the fields for plantation master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), and learning to read the Bible by the master’s wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller).

Turner uses his literacy to preach to slaves on nearby plantations, but becomes disillusioned upon realizing his Old Testament sermons are being used to keep slaves subservient. After the brutality of violent slave master Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earl Haley), Turner feels a divine calling to lead a slave revolt against their oppressors, killing roughly 55 white people, followed by white mobs killing 100-200 African Americans in retaliation, before Turner’s surrender to be hanged in Jerusalem, Virginia.

As a piece of art, it’s a stirring directorial debut filled with “Strange Fruit” atmosphere, as the camera slowly pulls back to one of the most chilling songs ever recorded by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Against this backdrop, Parker paints Turner as a messianic figure with Biblical imagery, witnessing a solar eclipse as a sign from above, seizing revenge with a glowing crucifix on the wall, betrayed by a follower like Judas, standing in a Christ silhouette in jail and walking to his public death in Jerusalem.

The key difference is that neither Jesus nor Joan of Arc ever killed anyone before their execution. Turner’s martyr has blood on his hands (women and children) like William Wallace, only instead of shouting, “Freedom,” it’s a restrained, “I’m ready.” Here, Parker offers avant-garde hallucinations, from over-the-top visions of an angel, to brilliant nightmares of a young Turner running from a lynch mob only to be shielded by his adult self, building to a hopeful glimpse of the Civil War’s 54th Mass.

From start to finish, it’s a stronger directorial statement than it is a piece of writing, but daring visual flourishes help to mask the more uneven or clichéd parts of the narrative. It’d be a mistake to judge these too harshly for a first-time feature writer (Parker for screenplay, Celestin for story), as there are signs of dialogue working on multiple levels. After Turner reads a Bible verse about masters being superior to their slaves, the script cuts to two slave masters laughing: “Let’s sit around and tell lies.”

For all these clever double meanings, there’s no getting around the albatross baked into the script: the catalyst for the rebellion is the rape of Turner’s wife. Sensitive viewers may cringe at the subtext of Parker’s similar real-life dispute, breaking the audience-filmmaker illusion and briefly taking them out of the film. Thankfully, the incident is left off screen far more than advanced press suggested.

As for Parker’s performance, it’s a breakout leading role after supporting Denzel Washington in “The Great Debaters” (2007) and Terrence Howard in “Red Tails” (2012). His acting skills are best on display in three scenes: (1) choking up at the sight of his wife’s brutalized body with the gasping shock of Emmett Till; (2) challenging his master’s Old Testament quotes with contradictory Biblical quotes like Jesus calling out the Pharisees; and (3) leading a rousing sermon to his fellow slaves to provide hope of breaking their chains, while the plantation owners stand oblivious, hearing but not listening.

The above achievements by a singular voice — producing, directing, writing and starring — will earn comparisons to Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves” (1990) or Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” (1995). But while both of those films won Best Picture, neither of their filmmakers were mired in controversy at the time. Can you imagine if Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant broke during that Oscar race? Game over.

So as we enter the fall award season, the film is looking nowhere near like the Best Picture horse that was initially predicted out of Sundance, saddled with too much baggage to make it to the finish line. The allegations aren’t the only Oscar challenge; an equal hurdle is the over-saturation of the genre.

On the one hand, “The Birth of a Nation” (2016) provides a centennial bookend to D.W. Griffith’s inventive yet racist 1915 Ku Klux Klan film of the same title, which President Woodrow Wilson hailed: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” It’s an important reminder of the horrors lurking off screen in epics like “Gone With the Wind” (1939).

On the other hand, Parker’s film lacks the originality of “Roots” (1977), the cast of “Glory” (1989), the dialogue of “Django” (2012) and the compositions of “12 Years a Slave” (2013), a masterpiece that’ll easily be the film to represent this genre on best lists. Why pick Parker when you can have McQueen, Ridley, Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch, Nyong’o, Giamatti, Dano, Woodard, Pitt and Paulson?

Beyond the genre, you could argue that George Stevens’ “Giant” (1956), Robert Mulligan’s”To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood” (1991) all showed greater moral courage than Parker at a time when it wasn’t as trendy.

In the 21st century, Hollywood’s sincere goal should be for African-American filmmakers to take on a wider range of roles and subjects that exceed the confines of race, rather than rich white producers offering “40 acres and a mule” in this one limited genre of the slave drama. This is the key to breaking the #OscarsSoWhite diversity problem, rather than segregating into a “Black Cinema” subgenre.

In the end, the Oscars may honor “Birth” with a Best Picture nomination in our new crowded 10-film field, but it’s unlikely to win simply because it’s coming three years after “12 Years a Slave.” It’s the same as Holocaust dramas released just after “Schindler’s List” (1993); Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” (1997) and Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” (2002) won Best Actor, but not Best Picture.

Which brings us full circle to the Polanski-Parker conversation. An exiled and guilty-pleading Polanski was awarded Best Director 25 years after his trial, while an acquitted Parker is competing 17 years after his trial — albeit only six months after the case really came to light for most voters and viewers.

Personally, I think the art itself is a powerful, provocative, timely debut. As for Parker, it will be up to each voter’s conscience. In an age of increased sexual assault awareness, it’s hard to judge voters put off by the ordeal, channeling Parker: “Her family had to deal with that, but as I sit here, an Oscar? No.”

It’s hard to pull that lever on a film that asks us to acknowledge our own messy past as a nation, while its creator openly struggles to do the same. Less defiance and more remorse would go a long way, for America loves redemption stories if the person shows at least awareness and at most repentance.

Regardless, it’s time for constructive conversation rather than knee-jerk reactions. Don’t get your rocks off throwing rocks at Parker. Like the book Nat Turner preached, “Let he without sin cast the first stone.” Forgiveness is divine. That’s what this case is all about. Beyond debates of “art vs. artist,” “white vs. black,” “guilty vs. innocent,” the real question is: Can we take the high road and forgive?

If those grieving families at that historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina can look in the eyes of their loved ones’ white-supremacist killer, lips quivering to say, “I forgive you,” it’s not impossible for a nation to bind the deep wounds of its past with the healing power of forgiveness.

Forget the Oscar race; that’s amazing grace.

July 23, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley on 'The Birth of a Nation' (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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