Eppler: 'Birth of a Nation' baggage heavier than the movie

Eppler: 'Birth of a Nation' baggage heavier than the movie

In the case of "The Birth of a Nation," the baggage attached to the movie is far more weighty than the film itself. When it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy had blown up with all the acting nominees lily white for the second year in a row. So along comes this movie that Hollywood can use to atone for its sins - a historical drama and passion project by a talented young up-and-coming filmmaker that ticks all the Oscar bait boxes.

The movie sold for a record price at the festival and the studio was gonna ride it to Oscar glory. But then, writer/director and star Nate Parker's past became the story: he was accused and charged with rape in college. He was acquitted, but it's still lead to protests against this movie by sexual assault survivor groups.

That's an awful lot for any piece of art to bear, and judged on its own merits, "The Birth of a Nation" is a well-made movie with some first-time filmmaker problems.

It's the true story of Nat Turner (Parker), a preacher and slave who lead a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. He'd been used by owners to preach scriptures of submission to their slaves. Turner's own spiritual journey is the inspirational heart of this movie as he begins to question the contradicting nature of scripture.

This is a beautifully shot, well-acted movie with a fantastic story to tell. It's a passion project for Parker, who saw the lack of good stories and roles for black actors - even using the same title as one of the most racist movies ever produced in case the point wasn't clear. And indeed, must of the movie has the same overtness. Parker isn't subtle with his mythologizing of Turner and at times it's way over the top.

Parker's treatment of women in the film is also problematic. They're seen more as targets for abuse that need to be avenged rather than developed characters. 

"The Birth of a Nation" is an admirable, occasionally inspiring, sometimes clumsy piece of work. But it may be remembered more for the circumstances surrounding it.

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