‘The Birth of a Nation’ Producer on Controversy Surrounding Film


This piece is an online supplement to the Oct. 21 article “Persistence of Vision.”

From left: Jason Michael Berman, John Cooper (director, Sundance Film Festival), "Birth of a Nation" director Nate Parker and Trevor Groth (director of programming, Sundance Film Festival)
From left: Jason Michael Berman, John Cooper (director, Sundance Film Festival), “Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker and Trevor Groth (director of programming, Sundance Film Festival)

First, there was the “magical” experience producer Jason Michael Berman and the rest of his crew of 400 enjoyed after receiving impossibly triumphant roars of praise for “The Birth of a Nation” at its effulgent 2016 Sundance premiere that led to a record-breaking sale to distributor Fox Searchlight.

Trade paper Hollywood Reporter raved, with a tinge of what would turn out to be dramatic irony, that this masterful film based on the life of early 19th century era Nat Turner was best described as, “The Slave-Revolt Movie That Will Have Sundance Talking.”

Eight months later the film has begun receiving less-than-cheerful reviews.

As Berman insinuates — and which would be hard to miss in today’s media-saturated “conflict as commodity” environment, as filmmaker Justin Simien has put it in “Dear White People” — the shift in reception may be due in part to an unfortunate fog of controversy brought on by the mainstream media’s revisiting of rape allegations levied at the film’s director and co-writer that have galvanized a torrent of online outrage, college screening cancellations and, yes, a perceptible sea change in critical reviews that went from glowing to muddy in less than a year.

It’s merely another challenge to overcome for Berman, who has lived with learning differences such as dyslexia throughout the course of life and has as such overcome seemingly insuperable odds to attain an enviable level of credibility in the film industry.

Berman, as he notes, is one of those 400 people who invested his heart and soul (“for not a lot of pay,” as the indie mogul on the rise was sure to point out) into a project whose judgment shouldn’t necessarily be based on the past of one or two said members.

There’s the queston of the importance of the story itself, in Berman’s estimation. Berman, his crew and certainly his director/lead actor Nate Parker felt compelled to bring this story of trenchant injustice to a mainstream audience in a time of heated debate and tension throughout the country and global arena overall about such issues.

There’s the question of the film’s aesthetic merits, which are certainly something to behold.

Despite its occasional requisite missteps for a directorial debut that never could have lived up to the titanic buzz it garnered in its salad Sundance days, there’s extant the potent sincerity of the acting, particularly on Parker’s level, and craftsmanship of the same — from its mesmeric cinematography that wavers between transportive realism and intoxicating etherealism, to powerful musical score and pitch-perfect, unobtrusive editing.

This all makes for a film that defies any storytelling stumbles with a powerfully visceral wallop and emotionally intense moviegoing experience not to be missed, regardless of political affiliation or extra-cinematic considerations.

And yet, there are many potential audience members who now refuse to see the film, in fact finding a semblance of surprising solidarity with one of the project’s own actresses, a rape survivor herself, Gabrielle Union, who has recently stated that she understands why there might be some who would boycott the film based on the allegations made against the film’s director/lead actor and co-writer.

There are those who point to what they suggest are the film’s historical inaccuracies — the fact that, for example, these two controverises are inextricably linked by the notion that though in the film Turner springs into bloody action after his wife is brutally raped and beaten by white slavemasters, historical evidence contains no such record.

“This entire situation has gotten blown up by the trades,” Berman suggested during an interview with the JT. Berman went on to opine that “no doubt the controversy was involved” in the film’s disappointing box office returns.

“Look at our reviews from Sundance and look at the reviews now,” Berman said. “It’s totally skewed.”

As for claims of historical innacuracies, particularly in reference to a recent scathing article written by professor and historian Leslie M. Anderson in The Nation, Berman agrees with Parker’s own assertion that there’s a reason the movie is said to be “based on a true story” and not necessarily simply “a true story.” There can be no 100 percent accurate film, Berman and Parker aver.

Berman went on to explain that, according to the mounds of research Parker looked into over the nearly decade-long period of script development, the story of Turner and his 48-hour slave rebellion in pre-Civil War south was recorded and disseminated in large part by those who may have had ulterior motives in how the tale was recounted.

“Yes, there will always be people who will come out and say there were inaccuracies,” Berman said. “But that will be based on their opinions, because really, we don’t know exactly what happened.”

As for the charges of sexual misconduct on the part of the film’s director and co-writer, Berman pronounced that “this is not the Nate Parker story; this movie is much bigger than one person’s” and agrees with Union, who despite her publicly made ambivalence, has nevertheless declared “it’s an important film to see.”

“[The controversy] shouldn’t inhibit you from going,” Berman said.

“We made a controversial enough movie already,” he continued. “And this has really impacted the people involved in this movie.”

Certainly, as has Parker himself confessed, Berman understands that his director was “looking through things from a different lens” when he was a 19-year-old college student.

“I understand that people have the ability to change and become better,” he continued.

“Some of the best art has come from people who have gone through extreme situations,” Berman said. “I know this from working with more than 15 first-time filmmmakers. That’s why they have pulled from these experiences.”

As far as his own experiences in overcoming struggles in his life to accomplish what he’s done as a filmmaker, teacher and entertainment entrepreneur, Berman sees a personal connection to the story of Turner that runs deep into his heritage.

“As Jews, we understand the oppression aspect,” Berman said. “These are the kinds of stories that matter to us. There’s a desire to create right from wrong. It’s ingrained in us as human beings, and that was part of the desire to tell this story.”

Related reading: Woody Allen’s Longtime Writing Partner on Separating the Art from the Artist.


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