'The Birth of a Nation' was an Oscar shoo-in. Before the rape scandal.

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Filmmaker Nate Parker, who's embroiled in controversy, as Nat Turner. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

By now you likely have heard of The Birth of a Nation, a retelling of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt that’s made all manner of headlines this year.

Written, directed, and co-produced by Nate Parker, who also plays Turner, the movie was acquired for a record-breaking $17.5 million after its buzzed-about premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. From there, critical acclaim and Oscar glory seemed all but assured.

Then, in August, a different kind of headline emerged: Parker and his co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin, had been accused of raping a fellow student while attending Penn State in 1999. (The case was a matter of public record, but few were aware of it.) Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was found guilty and later had his conviction overturned. Most troubling of all, their unnamed accuser took her own life in 2012.

It falls on the public to tangle with the question of how — or even whether — to watch this movie. Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and too many others have presented their fans with similar quandaries. But Parker doesn’t have the benefit of decades or even years of experience and goodwill that often inclines viewers to turn a blind eye to scandal and separate the artist from his work.

It’s a conflict made especially difficult by the nature of this performance and the fact that he’s in almost every single scene.

“You’re a child of God,” Turner’s father tells the boy (at first played by Tony Espinosa) at a pivotal moment early in his life. From this and a vaguely surreal religious rite Turner believes himself to be touched by God, a belief borne out by his exceptional intelligence and reading lessons from the woman who owns him. The books he gently touches in her library are beyond him, she says in the condescending tone specific to slaveowners in movies presented as slightly more enlightened by their peers. But there’s one that’d be just right for him: the Bible.

Behind the camera Parker shepherds things along with a confidence belying his status as a first-time filmmaker, but in front of it he sometimes stumbles. The actor can be so fixated on portraying Turner the leader and preacher that he forgets to simply portray Turner the man. There are few everyday moments to contrast the grand speeches and calls to action, and little sense of what he might have been like to friends and family.

You can see his inner conflict deepen from scene to scene as he slowly comes to accept that the only way out of this life is to rise up, though he knows that the loss of his own life — and those of his brethren — is likely. It’s as though he never has a choice. Hindsight in historical fiction inclines us to look at the events of the past as inevitable, even preordained, and The Birth of a Nation regards Turner’s uprising not just as something that did happen but as something that had to happen. It was an inextricable chapter in America’s messy story.

Turner is eventually spurred to action by a rape, as is too often the case in movies about great men righteously taking on their oppressors. The fact that this particular assault doesn’t correlate with the historical record has only intensified the controversy surrounding Parker and his film. In its graphic depictions of brutality and rousing battle sequences, The Birth of a Nation is not unlike Braveheart: the same sense of bloody grandeur, the same complicated grappling with the past. That it doesn’t get all its facts straight is troublingly apropos of a movie whose own story is still being written.

The Birth of a Nation
Directed by Nate Parker
Area theaters, now playing


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