Forgiveness is tricky and personal, and you can't be blamed for not offering it. Buying a ticket to Nate Parker's slave-revolt drama The Birth of a Nation demands at least some measure of it. Despite the acquittals, the details of Parker's 1999 rape trial remain sickening, and as the case is retried in the press today the victim is not around to speak up for herself -- she committed suicide in 2012.
For all that we have The Birth of a Nation, in theaters across America, a film fully deemed important before anyone outside of Sundance had seen it. (Parker's past, though in the public record, did nothing to quell distributors' bidding frenzy.) It's a passion project, an indie stab at an African-American Braveheart, a bluntly potent revenge thriller spun from Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion. Of course it's important. It's everything Hollywood has failed to put onscreen for a century. It dares not to soften black anger or question its righteousness. It is, as Woodrow Wilson might have it, history reclaimed with lightning.
As a storyteller, Parker is good at the things that Hollywood is still good at: the anticipation of violence; beating and humiliation; men shouting the truths that motivate them; the pleasures of retribution; men forging bonds through such bloody work. The rousing scene of Turner's army of freed slaves each stating what he would be doing at that moment if he were still on the plantation almost makes up for the earlier horror-film jump scares. But the writer/director/actor doesn't bother to dramatize the questions of religious belief -- and a key one of forgiveness -- that Turner's life turns on.