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The Birth of a Nation


Published October 12, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 12, 2016 at 5:18 p.m.

Never before have the fortunes of a filmmaker and his debut creation soared to such prerelease heights, only to come crashing and burning back to Earth just in time for opening weekend. The story of Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation is fraught, racially charged and open to countless interpretations. More than anything, though, it's just sad.

Fox Searchlight Pictures paid a record $17.5 million for the picture at Sundance Film Festival in January. Parker's movie received both the Grand Jury and Audience awards. The film, a liberally fictionalized account of the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner, was instantly anointed an Oscar front-runner. Then the press decided to find out just who had made it.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the brouhaha: This isn't a particularly compelling or well-made film. It's very much the work of an ambitious beginner, corny in some places, pretentious in others. Parker not only directed, produced and scripted, he also plays its central character.

Think 12 Years a Slave lite. Numerous characters, relationships and even whole scenes feel like B-movie versions of ones lifted from Steve McQueen's infinitely more artful work. Parker plays Turner, an indentured preacher who suffers from hallucinations. Like the character played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years, he's fortunate in that his owner (Armie Hammer) is more benevolent than most. Until he isn't.

Here's where the script and history diverge. Two developments are presented as the impetus for Turner shifting into deadly avenger gear. First, he discovers how much crueler other owners are when he's forced to preach the gospel of obedience to slaves on neighboring plantations. His master pockets the speaking fees.

And second, he's incensed when white men rape his wife and a friend's. Despite the filmmaker's assertion at last month's Toronto International Film Festival that "for me, historical accuracy was very important," neither of these key story elements actually happened. (Among those who've pointed to the picture's numerous distortions of fact are Ohio State University African Studies professor Leslie M. Alexander and Patrick H. Breen, a Providence College professor and author of a recently published history of the Nat Turner revolt.)

The film's final act is pretty much your standard gory revenge-fest, only with artsy flourishes like a shot of a bleeding ear of corn. Parker achieves occasional moments of haunting power — for example, a scene pairing images of a mass lynching with a chilling rendition of "Strange Fruit" by Nina Simone. But, again, he fudges the facts. These particular alleged lynchings never happened.

History can't quite decide whether the 48-hour massacre that Turner and his followers conducted, slaughtering women and children along with slave owners — a fact that the film omits — was an act of patriotism or terrorism. One thing is not in question, however: Parker may or may not be a promising auteur, but he's definitely a dick.

What the media uncovered is tragic and shocking: some rapes that actually did happen, in 1999. As sophomores at Pennsylvania State University, Parker and his cowriter, Jean Celestin, were charged with sexually assaulting an 18-year-old who was unconscious. Parker got off on a technicality. Celestin was convicted. He appealed, but the case never came to court because the victim couldn't bear to testify again. In 2012, she committed suicide.

Parker's responses to questions about his past have alienated a wide range of people, from anti-rape activists holding vigils outside LA theaters to the board of the American Film Institute, which canceled the film's August screening and Q&A with its maker. Parker behaves like he's been taking contrition tips from Donald Trump. On "60 Minutes," Parker told Anderson Cooper he didn't "feel guilty." Last week on "Good Morning America," he declared, "I was falsely accused. I was proven innocent, and I'm not going to apologize for that."

I'd be touchy, too, I suppose, if I'd blown my Oscar chances with a bad attitude and big mouth. They say, "Judge the art, not the artist." I'm not sure that applies in this case, though. I haven't seen any sign of art.