To preface this review, let me say that I am putting aside any and all sexual assault allegations against the people responsible for making the film. You can read about that if you’re interested by googling Nate Parker, but I am not here to weigh in on that. Whatever he has done has little to nothing to do with the film, and here I am setting aside the artist and his art.
“The Birth of a Nation” clearly works to remind you of a specific past film, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 motion picture “The Birth of a Nation,” infamous among the film community.
Portraying the horrific Klansmen as heroes earned it a place among the most racist films ever made. The 2016 “Birth of a Nation” is clearly trying to be the opposite of its 1915 titular companion. Set in 1831 Virginia, it tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave/preacher who led the bloodiest slave rebellion in American history. However, its namesake is not the only film it recalls.
The Oscar winning “12 Years A Slave” is clearly an influence, another prestige slavery picture done exceptionally well, as is “Django Unchained,” specifically in the feats of violence perpetrated in the third act. Most interestingly, however, the film it harkens towards to me is 1978’s “I Spit on Your Grave,” a rape-revenge picture that is much maligned by critics. However, the event of horrific violence being bestowed on a woman or person of color being met with a fruitless act of violent revenge is not something that should be overlooked. And that is where both films succeed, not in the final act of violence, but in the atrocities committed to the heroes in order to get the view on their side.
In terms of sexual assault, “The Birth of a Nation” finds its biggest flaw. The rape and beating of Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry, is handled poorly and in cliché. While records point to her existence, none that I could find show her being assaulted, sexually or otherwise, before her husband’s rebellion. The fact that the screenwriter, in this case, also the director, producer and star, Nate Parker, felt the need to add this to Turner’s character motivation is suspect enough. The atrocities shown to happen to the slaves are enough for the average movie goer to understand his need to fight back. But even more reprehensible is the handling of her rape. We never see her reaction to it or how it affected her. It is only used to motivate the lead (male) hero, and that is something that needs to be retired from film altogether.
This is not to say there isn’t greatness in this film. The portrayal of slave owners, no matter how kind, as inherently racist and deeply flawed is a bold and successful choice. The wife of Turner’s original master is shown to teach him how to read, but even she says that most books are for white people. Too many slavery pictures want to show that there were some honest, good, unbigoted white people, and that is something we do not need to see. Another strength of the film’s lies in showing the class difference between the slaves. Nat Turner’s owner is fairly well off for the region and even he is shocked by what we see at some of the other plantations. This allows the audience to witness them and be disgusted too, and works exceptionally in the film.
“The Birth of a Nation” is certainly a hard pill to swallow in this day and age, but it is one that must be seen.
Rating: 4/5 Stars