Judge the art, not the artist. That has been the going mantra in certain cultural circles from time immemorial, at once a dignified way of approaching the arts as a purely creative pursuit divorced from moral responsibility, and also an easy method of pretending the more base instincts of humanity simply do not exist. It's a mental demarcation that's allowed audiences to enjoy everything from the music of Richard Wagner to the films of Roman Polanski, guilt-free. And now, it's being used to defend one of the most controversial movies of the year, Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation.
First, some background for those who have been blessedly unfamiliar with one of Hollywood's uglier tales. In 1999, Parker and his Penn State roommate (and Nation co-writer) Jean Celestin were charged with sexually assaulting a fellow student. Parker admitted to having sex with the 18-year-old woman after a night of drinking, but said it was consensual. The woman, whose identity has not been revealed, told police she was unconscious and could not have consented. In 2001, Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty, but appealed and had the verdict thrown out after the woman refused to testify at a second trial in 2005. The story ostensibly ends in 2012, when the woman committed suicide.
The case was not exactly buried, but it was long-forgotten – until, that is, The Birth of a Nation found itself a few months out from wide release and carrying the crushing weight of Oscar buzz. Suddenly, Parker was put under a microscope, as was his film – a biopic of slave Nat Turner, who led a bloody revolt against slave owners in 1830s Virginia – and whose narrative pivots on two scenes of brutal sexual assault.
All of which has forced critics and audiences to scramble toward the old art-versus-artist argument. Can we not simply appreciate Parker's film without having to play judge and jury on the man's past? Doesn't the importance of Turner's story trump any misgivings we might carry about its chronicler? And why should Parker be the one filmmaker to find himself singled out when the industry consistently celebrates the work of Polanski, or Mel Gibson, or 1,000 other white artists with toxic histories who will never know the struggle of producing movies in the diversity-averse Hollywood system?
These are easy questions to pose, but harder ones to answer – especially when the art in question is written, directed, produced by and starring the same man. The Birth of a Nation is Nate Parker, and Nate Parker is The Birth of a Nation. Knowing about Parker's legal history – especially his recent comments on it, which range from vaguely apologetic ("I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom," he wrote on Facebook in August) to outright dismissive ("I was falsely accused, I was proven innocent, and I'm not going to apologize for that," he told Good Morning America this week) – accents every corner of this film, itself a story of guilt, redemption and forgiveness. It is impossible and foolish to pretend otherwise.
But perhaps this inevitable conversation is not as complicated or lengthy as might have originally been presumed. Because while The Birth of a Nation certainly has a powerful and important story to tell, it is, ultimately, a story told with little depth or artistry or skill. It is a film that, for all the fraught debates surrounding it and the gigantic hopes placed upon it, is merely a curious blip on the film landscape – a serviceable television movie that somehow found itself inflated for the big screen, ready to declare itself game-changing cinema.
Parker begins promisingly enough, in that he presents images too often absent from mainstream film – performers of colour, acting out a scene in which no white characters are necessary. Here, it's a hallucinatory glimpse into Nat Turner's younger days, with the slave boy proclaimed a prophet by a group of black priests. "This boy, he holds the holy marks of our ancestors," one of the priests says, pointing to scars on Turner's chest, likely keloid nodules, as the music swells and the tension rises. "We should listen to him."
It's an intriguing opening, and delivered with just the right level of sincerity to keep it from tipping over into cliché. But then, very quickly, the film falls apart from the inside out. As Turner grows up into his role as a charismatic slave-preacher (played by the equally charismatic Parker), his life becomes crowded with stock characters (the self-sacrificing mother, the comely wife-to-be) and paint-by-number plot turns. It is as if Parker had studied every rote trick of the biopic genre – weepy flashbacks, crude melodrama, obvious imagery – and committed them to memory, so intensely distrustful he must have been of his own filmmaking skills to deliver something new or innovative.
The director's pedestrian tactics are most evident in his command, or lack thereof, over his cast. While Parker knows how to expertly play to the camera – he all but winks at the audience, so confident is he in his admittedly captivating lead performance – he abandons his fellow actors, allowing them to exploit their worst instincts: hammy accents, wild gesticulating, uneasy line readings. Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley – these are solid character actors who are capable of remarkable turns. Here, though, they are embarrassing – or perhaps just embarrassed with the dialogue Parker's script saddles them with. By the time the film closes – with a truly reaching time-jump that risks sullying not only Turner's legacy but that of an entire generation to come – it is not cruel to suggest that the best thing Parker ever wrote was the film's title, a sly reclamation of D.W. Griffith's intolerably racist 1915 agitprop.
The most immediate – and crass – comparison to all of this would be Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, a film that covered similar ground and was also feted as a possible salve for Hollywood's lily-white complexion. But McQueen is a seasoned, mature artist with a lifetime of multidisciplinary work behind him, and someone who can take any material and twist it into something remarkably sharp and striking and eternal. Parker is a first-time filmmaker sure of only one thing: himself. The two filmmakers simply do not belong in the same sentence.
So what are we left with? There is still much to discuss about Nate Parker – and about America, Hollywood, diversity, justice and forgiveness. But, unfortunately, there is not nearly as much to say about The Birth of a Nation.