“Separating the art from the artist” is an almost impossible — yet arguably necessary — strategy many fans and critics must employ to enjoy artistic beauty created by flawed human beings. People yearn to idealize art as an untarnished embodiment of the artist, often unwilling to believe that many artists lead tarnished lives. This conflict has come to the forefront of the debate surrounding the recent release of The Birth of a Nation, a film that is the brainchild of Nate Parker, who directed, produced, and starred in it. Parker takes on the dominant role of Nat Turner, playing an idealized, hyper-masculine hero seeking to bring his people out of slavery. However, because Parker appropriates and assumes the persona of Nat Turner, separating the film from Parker’s sexually abusive past becomes incredibly difficult, which is furthered by the films problematic portrayal of gender roles and its lack of emotional depth. As a result of these interwoven complexities, Parker’s proven misogyny and alleged sexual abuses manifest themselves onto the film reel, crushing the political empowerment The Birth of a Nation attempts to inspire.
Meticulous scrutiny is required when evaluating The Birth of a Nation, a film many expected to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. After its premier, the film was immediately labeled a landmark drama that would move to action people of all stripes engaged in contentious debates about race in America. Parker quickly became a hero for the black community as both a challenger to Hollywood’s #OscarsSoWhite status quo and a fierce advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement — he himself stated that the film was created for the “young man who didn’t have heroes growing up.” Parker appeared to have accomplished these goals when Fox Searchlight purchased the movie’s rights for a record $17.5 million, indicating Hollywood’s efforts to clean its hands of its racist history. Because of these lofty expectations from the black community, the movie industry, and an American public seeking to reconcile its racial fractures, The Birth of a Nation assumes a critical responsibility as not “just a movie,” but a vehicle for social change. In both regards, however, it flounders.
The Birth of a Nation illustrates the development of Nat Turner as he witnesses a number of horrific encounters: the brutal rapes of black slave women by white men, the traumatic sight of a white girl playfully pulling a slave girl on a noose, and the gruesome force-feeding of a slave unwilling to eat. Through these agonizing experiences, Turner becomes radicalized, leading dozens of slaves in an all-out massacre of white plantation owners that led to their own deaths at the hands of the military. The last scene depicts Parker, who survives, turning himself in and looking to the heavens as he is hanged.
The content of The Birth of a Nation presents several issues. First, Parker utilizes women in the film as nothing more than props propelling the plot forward, most notably through their abhorrent rapes. As Nat Turner’s wife Cherry Ann and her friend Esther are assaulted and raped by white men, Nat Turner becomes a “constant, morally unambiguous hero” driven to retributive action against his slave owners. While this happens, the women quietly disappear into the background. The women depicted in The Birth of a Nation, mainly Nat’s wife, mother, and grandmother, simply serve as his enablers, saying yes to his marriage proposals, remaining silent when Nat declares war against the white man, and quietly sewing stitches onto his back. They are given no independent voice and no character development, while Nat commands control of the movie for its duration.
Additionally, Parker sanitizes and idealizes Nat Turner, obviously intending to depict a perfect hero and a perfect redemption story. Although historically Nat Turner hides out until he is caught, he nobly turns himself in in the film. Although Nat Turner’s actual main impetus was his religious fanaticism, in the film he rationalizes his radicalization with far different justifications. As Turner’s nuances are ignored, he is reduced to a simplified gladiator hero, privileging overwhelming bloodshed to thoughtful storytelling. As a result, it is difficult to accept The Birth of a Nation as a legitimate counter to #OscarsSoWhite on its artistic merits, even without raising the question of Parker’s personal history.
Through all the personal baggage that Parker brings to The Birth of a Nation, the poignancy of the movie is predictably, yet appropriately, minimized in the larger discussion about feminism and the black community. The film, reflecting Parker’s own history, seems to view solidarity as a masculine product for feminine consumption. As a result, reconciling The Birth of a Nation with all of its political and social baggage becomes incredibly difficult, mitigating its purported cause by silencing over half of its population.
Parker’s highly publicized rape scandal concretizes criticisms of his own misogyny manifested in the film. After the alleged rape, Parker and his roommate abused the victim, hurling sexual epithets at her and calling her with harassing messages, contributing to the victim’s eventual suicide in 2012. To this date, Parker admits no wrongdoing in the incident, but calls himself a “grown” and “changed” man. There is no doubt that The Birth of a Nation’s cinematic sexism is deeply rooted in Parker’s personal sexism. Although the issues of his sexual assault scandal are convoluted, Parker’s ideology and its manifestation in both his life and on the screen cut deeper into the wounds that The Birth of a Nation seeks to heal. It thus becomes almost impossible to uplift The Birth of a Nation as a revitalizing force for Black Lives Matter, as the lives of black women simply do not matter to Parker within and outside the film.
In tandem with issues of sexism, Parker’s hyper-masculine portrayal of Nat Turner creates another wedge in The Birth of a Nation, this time drawing a line of legitimacy between black heterosexual males and black homosexual males. Parker, who himself said in 2014 that he would never play a black gay man in order to “preserve the black man,” exemplifies this ideology by playing the stereotypical macho hero, a domineering patriarch seeking bloodthirsty revenge. Parker thus presents a deeply misguided perspective on the importance of black hyper-masculinity, a subgenre heavily criticized for decades in blaxploitation films. By essentially labeling gay black men as less than men, explicitly in his personal statements and implicitly through the film, Parker forces even more alienation within his own community, weakening the very unity he seeks to build. Parker thus implies that the cause of social justice within the black community must be achieved by heterosexual black males who exude the machismo of his Nat Turner, while every other subgroup silently cheers them on from the sidelines.
Parker strives to make The Birth of a Nation about more than himself, attempting to uplift the black community from the violence it faces today. However, by narcissistically uplifting himself through the camera lens and disregarding both black women and gay men, Parker dangerously diminishes the immense value that Nat Turner could bring to a modern audience. Even if the art can be separated from the artist, the film itself is a failure. Rightfully, the film flopped in its debut weekend.