Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” opened last night with two screenings at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s a powerful, unforgettable film that can’t be ignored box office wise or for awards attention. It’s all the more interesting because this is Parker’s first film as a director, and he’s pulled it off skillfully.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding it, “Birth” is a huge accomplishment. Parker gives a mesmerizing performance, but there’s also exceptional work from Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Colman Domingo, Gabrielle Union, et al. So yeah, in any other situation, “Birth of a Nation” would be a slam dunk.
But then what to do? As with Mel Gibson (who is bizarrely included on a list of thank yous in the end credits), how do we separate the art from the artist? Everyone knows by now the tragic situation: Parker was acquitted in 20o1 of a vicious campus rape at Penn State.
To make matters worse, the accuser killed herself in 2012. Parker’s “Birth” co-screenwriter Jean Celestin, also participated in the college attack. He was convicted, but that was overturned on appeal. And no one, not even Fox Searchlight– which paid a record $17 million at Sundance to release the film, knew all this until it came spilling out a couple of weeks ago.
This is all a huge headache for the studio, and for everyone. It’s very hard not to think about Parker’s saga (and the details are much worse if you search them out) while “Birth” unspools. That’s because rape is a central theme in the movie, and the story overall is obviously very violent. Racism is bad enough, but the American history of slavery is the worst blot on our 240 year history. Parker is unsparing in depicting it all, too. We’ve seen it before in “Roots” or “12 Years a Slave,” but this is yet another chapter. Slavery was the American Holocaust, and it overshadows all the heroism and patriotic flag waving we so embrace. How in the world could this have existed?
This pivotal moment in American history shouldn’t have been ignored for so long. It was really only in the culture because of William Styron’s novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” written by a white Southerner. The novel has become the target of critics since its publication. So now we have a young black man telling the story of another young black man– how could this film not resonate far and wide in 2016?
Last night at the Q&A following the second screening, there was no mention of Parker’s history. The audience was way too polite and tired to raise a ruckus. There was a standing ovation, but it was restrained. The real test will come tomorrow– Sunday — morning at the press conference. That will be the first indication of what Parker and Fox Searchlight face as they try to bring this important film to audiences.