As the 41st Toronto Film Festival gets underway, Fox Searchlight executives and their allies are bracing, or should be, for what is almost sure to be the next great fight over their prize contender, Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation: The reality debate.
Here’s one way to frame the main question. Is Parker’s film, which is based on the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion, really about Turner’s world, or is it about our own? Or, put differently, did Parker stretch, soften or manipulate historical truth, to make what many will see as a necessary statement about racial justice today?
Like any great historical drama, The Birth Of A Nation looks to strike a balance between then and now.
The film, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and meets a wider audience in Toronto over the weekend, is an authentic period drama, shot in the Deep South, steeped in historical research, and filled with tantalizing glimpses of people and things as they were in one of the American nation’s darker moments. The humiliation of a black slave for daring to look a white person in the eye becomes painfully real.
But the movie is also a 21st century polemic, crafted with an eye toward the headlines. It is impossible to watch one of its earliest scenes, in which Turner’s innocent father encounters homicidal slave hunters in the night, without thinking of Black Lives Matter or seeing a police stop gone bad in Ferguson or Minneapolis. People involved with the movie’s promotional campaign have said they expect young black males, many of whom shunned 12 Years A Slave as just another white redeemer story, to embrace The Birth Of A Nation as a call to resistance.
Ultimately, all narrative dramas are fiction. Unlike journalism, or even documentaries (which are something altogether different), they have no absolute obligation to the truth. Shakespeare took a free hand with his historical plays. And nobody much cared if Elizabeth Taylor got Cleopatra right.
Too, the obvious currency of The Birth Of A Nation, more than any claim to accuracy, is what drove an auction that resulted in a record-breaking sale, for over $17 million, at Sundance. Savvy distributors know that audiences might watch history, but they look for a mirror on themselves, and most of the best-received historical dramas — Braveheart and Lincoln — have provided that. Authenticity without sufficient relevance, by contrast, can sink a film, as happened lately to Free State Of Jones, which was directed by Gary Ross and released by STX.
But a movie that aims to revive a slighted historical figure, or to make history a factor in a live socio-political debate, can expect close scrutiny as people of vastly divergent viewpoints begin to watch it — and this movie does both.
In part, The Birth Of A Nation is an effort by proud African-Americans to reclaim Turner, who was virtually unknown to the wide world before he led a brief, bloody uprising that began on the morning of August 22, 1831, in Southampton County, VA. After the rebellion was suppressed a day later, Turner was demonized by some whites, and quickly forgotten by others; but he was remembered in black folk ways as a leader who had shown the way for a liberation that would only come later.
Those assigned by Fox to help promote The Birth Of A Nation, including operatives from the faith-oriented Wit PR firm, have said they expect to present Turner — entirely in keeping with the film’s spirit — as a man of God who took his inspiration from the Bible. But, more, they will describe him in public discussions like those expected in Toronto as a classic American liberator, in the mold of George Washington or Tom Paine.
With luck, and some guidance by Parker and others, that vision may take hold.
Still, as viewers less politically sympathetic than the left-leaning Sundance crowd see the film, that admiring view of Turner is sure to be measured against the historical record. And history can be troubling. In Turner’s Confessions, a contemporary document supposedly dictated to the slaveholder and lawyer Thomas Gray, for instance, Turner talks of spreading “terror” and cold-bloodedly describes the butchering of the wife and ten children of one Levi Waller. “I sometimes got in sight in time to see the work of death completed, viewed the mangled bodies as they lay, in silent satisfaction, and immediately started in quest of other victims,” he is recorded as saying.
It is not the sort of thing one usually identifies with Washington—though, in fact, he did his share of frontier fighting, and helped to dispossess the Native American tribes of what is now Western Pennsylvania. So who can be sure there was no similar moment?
Of course, Gray, whose account is the most detailed surviving description of the massacre (which was followed by even bloodier reprisals against often innocent blacks), has long been challenged as a reliable witness. From the beginning, oral tradition, and, later, black scholars, have described something closer to Nate Parker’s Turner—a hero and prophet, driven to perhaps justifiable slaughter by unspeakable oppression.
In Parker’s film, the brutal rape of Turner’s wife, Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King, helps to explain his vengeance. But in the historical record, few traces were left of a wife or her story; and, now, Parker’s decision to make rape a turning point in the film has been clouded by a fresh attention to his own 2001 trial on rape and sexual assault charges of which he was not convicted.
In life, more than half of the roughly 60 whites killed in the two-day rebellion were women and children. Parker’s film doesn’t detail all of those killings, but it doesn’t hide from them, either. Instead, like other historically grounded dramas — including Braveheart, from Mel Gibson, who counseled Parker in developing his story — The Birth Of A Nation wins sympathy by graphically depicting episodes that provoked the rebellion, as, for instance, when a shacked slave has his teeth knocked out so food can be funneled in. (Blacks killed in the retribution numbered in the hundreds; Turner was hanged, and, by tradition, according Eric Foner’s book Great Lives Observed: Nat Turner, was flayed so that “souvenir purses” could be made from his skin.)
In last year’s awards season, questions about veracity did damage to Truth, about CBS and its handling of the Dan Rather-George W. Bush controversy, and later to Concussion, which was caught in a cross-fire over realities of head trauma in professional football. Yet Spotlight, which like Truth was at last year’s Toronto festival, weathered a critique of at least some of its factual underpinnings, and went on to win the best picture Oscar, while rallying even Catholic Church members (with help from those same operatives at Wit PR) to the fight against priestly sexual abuse.
This year, National Transportation Safety Board investigators are already taking aim at Clint Eastwood’s Sully, claiming its dramatic portrayal of air safety regulators as villains for their treatment of “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger, played by Tom Hanks, is false.
There will be more, perhaps as early as Friday evening, when The Birth Of A Nation meets Toronto in back-to-back presentations. Those are almost certain to provoke arguments, old and new, about accuracy, truth and where the facts should fit in a politically charged historical drama.