Monday, November 28, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (2016)


Directed by Nate Parker.
2016. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Cast:
Nate Parker
Armie Hammer
Aunjanue Ellis
Penelope Ann Miller
Aja Naomi King
Colman Domingo
Jackie Earle Haley
Gabrielle Union
Mark Boone Junior
Dwight Henry
Esther Scott
Roger Guenveur Smith

I must have started this review twenty times. Each time, I got a sentence or two in and couldn't decide how to proceed. I just wasn't sure if the path I was starting on would lead me where I wanted to go. I'm done agonizing over my opening. I'm just going to start typing and let the words take me where they may. To paraphrase an old saying, I'm letting Jesus take the wheel. This is what I'm reduced to in trying to write a review of a film with more to unpack than any in recent memory. As if all the inherent luggage of a film about a violent slave uprising that takes its title from one of the most divisive movies of all-time isn't enough, The Birth of a Nation brings with it the disturbing past of its director and star. Normally, I'm the first one to say we must separate the art from the artist and judge the work on its own merit. Ultimately, that is what I will do. However, the noise surrounding Nate Parker is too loud to ignore.

If you've paid any attention at all to the journey of The Birth of a Nation from the Sundance Film Festival to a theater near you, you've probably heard about Nate Parker's acquittal of rape charges stemming from an incident in 1999 when he was a sophomore wrestler at Penn State University. The charges came to light as hype for the film began to build. Lots of information about the events of the night in question also became public knowledge. All of it is troubling and complicated. For starters, Parker's close friend, Jean McGianni Celestin, was also charged in the same incident, and was convicted. It just so happens Celestin is credited as working with Parker to create the story told by the film. The young woman at the heart of this case was white. If you're keeping score that's two black guys accused of raping a white woman, then going on to make a movie depicting extreme racial tension and, itself, involving the rape of a black female character by white men. Do you see how messy this is getting?

But wait, there's more.

The most unfortunate consequence of whatever transpired is that Parker and Celestin's accuser never seemed to recover from what happened to her and eventually committed suicide. Parker knew nothing of this development until it was told to him by an interviewer. How he addressed this, and the trial as a whole, left a lot to be desired. In fact, many have criticized Parker for trying to paint himself as a victim. It's also been said he's been smug and cavalier about the whole ordeal. This is especially troubling since, to many, it appears he merely got away with sexual assault, rather than being innocent. The final anvil dropped onto the head of this film? One of its stars, Gabrielle Union, a real life rape survivor and the woman playing one of the characters that is raped, wrote an editorial in The Los Angeles Times making it clear she had no knowledge of the case prior to filming and reprimanding her co-star and director in the process.


It's clear Parker's personal life is woven into the fabric of The Birth of a Nation. When setting out to review the film, I have to do just that, review the film. However, even after we manage to disentangle it from the muck of its surroundings, we're left with a film that gives us much to ponder. It's based on the very real slave revolt of 1831 led by Nat Turner (Parker) during which approximately sixty white people were killed. In its aftermath, over two hundred blacks were killed as retribution whether they had anything to do with the uprising, or not. Turner himself was one of these. In order to make an example of him, he was not only hanged, but his body was completely dismembered including the removal of his head. Turner's life leading up to this is where the film plays fast and loose with the facts. Because of this, the film as a whole is historical fiction.

We meet Nat as a very young boy on a plantation in Southampton, Virginia. Along with Elizabeth Turner (Miller), his slave master's wife, we learn that Nat is a very intelligent lad. She takes him under his wing and teaches him to read, but only The Holy Bible. Other books, she warns, are for white people. She brings Nat to church with her and allows him to read his Bible to the all-white congregation. As he grows into adulthood, he becomes a preacher for his fellow slaves. Word of this, combined with how well-behaved the slaves are on the Turner plantation, spreads to other slaveholders in Southampton. Since many of them are having issues with controlling their slaves, they decide to offer Nat's master Samuel (Hammer) money to have Nat come and preach on their plantations. The hope is that hearing another slave deliver a sermon urging them to be obedient to their masters, both heavenly and on Earth, will quell the insurrection the whites are so afraid is brewing. Samuel agrees and the two travel from place to place where Nat does as instructed. Mostly. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Nat witnesses some rather ungodly brutality which weighs heavily on his soul.

I once posted an article discussing the lengths to which I often go to avoid news about certain movies before I've seen them. The hope is that I can go into these films as cold as possible, thus giving myself the ability to form an opinion on what I've seen without the influence of others clouding my judgement. With the story of Nat Turner, I already knew the end result. Having the movie spoiled for me was not a concern. In it place was a curiosity about how others received it. Turner is such a controversial figure, I was particularly interested in what people who were not black thought of it. The reviews I've read (and listened to) were all over the map. However, one of the complaints common across most of them was that the setup took too long. I understand the complain, but I disagree with it. What Turner did is so polarizing along racial lines, the film needs this time to justify it for viewers on both sides of the divide. My own misgivings about this portion of the movie is not that it took too long, but that it could've been more tightly packed. As it stands, there is lots there, but occasionally has a tendency to meander in its efforts to make sure we know Nat is a well-meaning and deeply spiritual man. There are the heart-to-heart talks with his mother, Nancy (Ellis), the building of his relationship with Samuel, the evolving way in which his fellow slaves regard him, and of course, Nat's tender love affair with Cherry (King). Mixed in to all this is some extremely powerful imagery and incredibly tense and hard to watch moments. These are the things the movie needs more of. While all the relationship stuff is necessary character building, it is also fairly typical storytelling. It's those scenes that either make us shudder, cringe, or ball and tighten our fists in anger that really drive home the point the rest of the story is trying to make.

One of the things the story does do exceedingly well is use religion as a means to making itself relevant to current events. The too easy parallel to make, given we're talking African-Americans raging against an unjust system, is with the Black Lives Matter movement. I won't begrudge anyone who wants to make that connection because it's the one staring us in the face throughout the film's entire runtime. However, that's not the one I made. The one I focused on was the notion of who and what exactly is a terrorist is a post-911 world. In the vernacular of the mainstream media, they're all radical Islamics. However, the "radical" part of that phrase gets lost and it simply becomes Muslims. Even more damaging than portraying all terrorists as Muslims is what has resulted. That is, having all Muslims being portrayed as terrorists hell-bent on destroying the western way of life in the name of Allah. Turner is Christian. Still, his uprising is in the name of his God putting him on equal footing with jihadists, everywhere. This makes The Birth of a Nation a tough sell to white audiences. It's a different kind of black movie than the ones that typically receive attention during awards season. Those films, including the recent Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave and Oscar nominee Selma, play heavily into white guilt. They show whites as violent and aggressive oppressors, as this one does. The difference is the blacks in those films are merely out to stop being treating like beasts of burden and prey. In this film, the goal is retribution. This has always made Turner harder to sell to whites as a hero. It's one thing to accept someone mustering up all the humanity possible to remain peaceful in the face of violence to show whites the error of their ways. It's quite another to have someone treat them as inhumanely as they treated us and tell them he did a good thing. Yet, that's precisely the task this film takes on. It's asking for them to see someone they naturally consider to be a terrorist as a freedom fighter. That's something many whites are simply unable to do unless they themselves are the terrorists. In other words, the colonists taking up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War is somehow different from Nat Turner's revolt pretty much just because.


A lot of what I'm going on about will be lost on viewers focusing on the story at hand. That's okay. It places the spotlight back on the film, itself. At delivering this film we have to assess the technical and artistic aspects of it. As it is for everything else about this film, the lightning rod is Nate Parker. He not only plays the starring role, he directs, and as mentioned, wrote the story. His best, and most consistent work is done as an actor. He brings a wealth of emotion to the role. Somewhat unexpectedly, considering the content, he also exudes a rather effortless sex appeal. This was on display recently when he played the leading man in Beyond the Lights, so we knew he had it. Again, we just weren't expecting it, here. As a writer is where he is at his weakest. His story hits all the beats we expect from what is essentially a revenge thriller. It even hits them on time. And that's the problem. We can see every development coming from a mile away. The film also struggles to fit in all the characters in a way that makes us feel for any of them, aside from Nate. We care for them, or hate them, the way we would anyone involved in such atrocities, but not necessarily for them as individuals. This leaves the film a bit cold in some regards. It's as a director where Parker shows the most potential. Admittedly, the pacing is a little clunky as the film winds its way to the climactic revolt. There is also the issue of having too many things happen just off screen. The intent seems to be letting our imagination fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, it just waters down what's taking place. When he chooses to actually show things, however, Parker, no doubt greatly aided by cinematographer Elliot Davis, seems to have a natural gift for beautifully framing some rather unsettling imagery.

The cast Parker has to work with is strong, but not as fully utilized as perhaps is needed. This goes back to the issues with the script. They simply aren't given enough time to really make the desired impact as characters. Aside from Parker, Armie Hammer and Aunjanue Ellis fare best. Hammer plays Samuel as a "good Christian" man who treats his slaves better than every other plantation owner. We can see he's a conflicted man, but one clearly with a price. Ellis provides the film's most soulful performance as Nat's mother. The shame of it is she disappears for really long stretches. Penelope Ann Miller is nearly as good when on screen, but she is absent for even longer stretches. That said, she provides one of the film's most emotional moments, late in the film. Aja Naomi King provides one of the most visually emotional moments and is overall solid as Nat's eventual wife. Neither Jackie Earle Haley and Colman Domingo are quite wasted, here, but both could have had a far greater presence in the film. Sadly, Gabrielle Union is wasted, save for the aftermath of her aforementioned rape scene.

Despite the issues with the supporting characters, The Birth of a Nation is a really good film. Like the man who inspired it, it's bound to be polarizing. The subject matter and the director are both enough to turn some viewers off before even seeing the film. Therefore, who you are may have as much to do with how much, or how little, you like it even more than with most films. Additionally, it works better if watched metaphorically than it does as a surface watch. What plays out in a literal sense is fine, but it benefits from closer inspection and its relationship to today's world. So many things feel as if they were pulled from today's headlines and retrofitted to the nineteenth century. Regrettably, they weren't. They're just still relevant.

28 comments:

  1. I think if the scandal surrounding Parker hadn't broke out, the film could've gotten a fair chance. I wanted to see it since I heard about it at Sundance but it went away too quickly in theaters. If it comes on TV, I'll see it and give it a fair shot.

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    1. It definitely would've gotten a fairer chance had the scandal not occurred. What's not really receiving as much pub is that black audiences stayed away, too. Think about it. Tyler Perry movies rake in 3 or 4 times what this did with an overwhelmingly black audience. Without the controversy, I have to think we would've shown up enough to at least make the film profitable.

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  2. This was fascinating to read! I've heard the Parker scancal mentioned in a lot of reviews I've read, but I didn't know the full story until now. I do intend to give this a watch at some point, and I'll try to separate the scandal from the movie itself.
    - Allie

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    1. Thanks, there is lots more to the actual story. I just hit the big points. Would love hear what you think of it as a movie.

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  3. Brilliant post.

    I, admittedly, vowed to skip this one. From what I'd read, the film wasn't extremely well told (and it seems like your script issues point to that as well) and I find Parker repugnant. It is less what he did (which is awful in it's own right) but the way he handled it.

    But that's neither here nor there when discussing your review.

    Excellent dissection of what the film says, how it says it and how it makes you feel. I wanted to see this mostly for Union, who I respect immensely and have always wanted to see break out into more profound roles. She has so much talent.

    Still pretty sure I'll be skipping this one, though.

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    1. Thanks. No worries if you still want to skip it. Yes, his handling of this situation was not good, at all. To cut Parker the smallest amount of slack, there is no blueprint for what he was trying to do. I mean, it's not as if Woody Allen gets interrogated about his past transgressions before any of his films are released. However, that's a different can of worms.

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  4. I remember hearing about this film, and being confused because I made the connection to the historically significant but narratively controversial D.W. Griffith film. From what you described there doesn't seem to be any resemblance so unless that was deliberate it seems like a glaring oversight.

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    1. Parker chose the title deliberately, as a way to reclaim it from the 1915 film, or at least, show the other side of the coin.

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  5. There's been so much noise around this film that at a certain point I just checked out and decided to wait until it actually hit theatres and see how I felt about going to see it then. So far I'm still in that wait and see mode.

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    1. Understandable. It has now come and gone from most theaters. I imagine it will be hittiing home video and streaming services sooner, rather than later, in an effort to make some of the money the studio lost on this.

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  6. Wow, an eye-opening review mate, I hadn't heard that whole rape thing about this one at all. THB I guess titling your film after one of the most popular examples of racist filmmaking in cinema is courting controversy, but to hear Parker himself was involved in something of this nature is alarming indeed.

    You've alluded to this in a comment above, but it bears repeating: Parker's decision to title his film after one of cinema's most "celebrated" examples of racism on film was always going to court controversy, and one has to question whether this was a wise decision or a foolhardy one. Does the idea of reclaiming the title from Griffith's opus work as it should? For me personally (I haven't seen the film yet, but I will) the title alone evokes a certain expectation and emotional chrysalis, and while it's too long a bow to draw to suggest that either the white conquest of the Americas, or the black slavery narrative, or the near extinction of the indigenous Indian population could possibly encompass the titular "birth of a nation" in the manner a title so hubris-driven might indicate, given the complexity of the nascent USA's political, geographical and social climates across its long history, to me there's an element of arrogance (maybe not the correct word but one approximating how I fell about it) to Parker's decision to suggestively dangle that title before us.

    Perhaps we (by that I mean people generally, not necessarily people of colour or ethnicity other than white) need a film like this to generate conversation through which growth can occur? In asking that we root for people treating their persecutors the way they themselves had been treated we tap into that raw anger simmering beneath much of the United States today, the eye-for-an-eye subtext that pervades a lot of cathartic action cinema. Indeed, retributive cinema can be cathartic, although (again, not having seen the film) it seems to me that the intent and the execution of Parker's work are chasmic in achievement. I look forward to seeing the film in due course and revisiting this excellent review, dude. Nice job!

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    1. To be clear, there is nothing to suggest what Parker was involved in was racially motivated. It's more like a bunch of drunken college kids making a bunch of bad decisions on both sides of the equation.

      I don't think reclaiming the title from Griffith works the way it was intended to. Perhaps, it would've worked had the film itself been more of a cultural touchstone. Parker was likely expecting it to be. From the beginning I thought this to be a bad idea. Personally, I would've went with the title of the most well-known book about the man: The Confessions of Nat Turner, or something similar.

      This could've been a film that generates much conversation. Unfortunately, it came with so much excess baggage, it couldn't get off the ground.

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  7. Great review, I wish I could just let the words flow and come out as coherent as that.

    My issue with the film wasn't that it took too long to get to the point, but that the direction was awful. The more I think about it, I think it's one of the worst directed movies with a good script that I've ever seen. Parker really should've let someone else helm this one.

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    1. Thanks.

      Interesting. I thought it was the other way around: solid direction (not great) with a script that wasn't quite up to snuff.

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  8. I think that if his scandal hadn't come out, the film would have still tanked, because it's simply not a well-made film. I remember when I reviewed this after an early-screening, I was practically crucified for even whispering about the scandal in my post. Mind you, I briefly mentioned it, and I got torn apart by some people. It's ridiculous. The film is just NOT good, and it's riddled with historical inaccuracies. GREAT POST! This one if tough that's for sure.

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    1. I may have tanked, but I think more people would've been willing to give it a chance that first weekend had there not been the scandal. I do think it's good. Yes, it's got lots of historical inaccuracies, but that doesn't necessarily make it bad. After all, Braveheart, a film it actually shares a fair resemblance to when looking at the bare bones of how the story plays out, is based on a real person, and is even more inaccurate than this, yet people love it. Anyhoo, this is definitely a toughie. Thanks!

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  9. I had problems with the film, regardless of the scandal. It's too bad because I think there were nuggets of gold in there. As you say, the religious theme was one of them.

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    1. The religious theme was certainly one. I think, overall, it's a film that might have been better served had Parker waited until his second or third outing as director.

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  10. Your last three sentences...so true. :-(

    I haven't seen this movie yet. I'll admit I decided to skip it in the theater after the sexual assault controversy surrounding Nate Parker. His glib comments about the incident horrified me, and I was really disappointed because I admired him as an actor and admired him for making this particular film. That said, I'll watch it online and judge it on its own merits. It sounds like a worthy, albeit flawed, movie.

    "That's something many whites are simply unable to do unless they themselves are the terrorists. In other words, the colonists taking up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War is somehow different from Nat Turner's revolt pretty much just because." >>>>> This struck me, because I was thinking it just before you said it (actually just before I read your words, but you know what I mean). It seems that most white people appreciate stories about fighting racism as long as they don't challenge their comfort level.(I guess it's kind of arrogant to use the pronoun "they," implying that I exclude myself from the generalization. Oh well.) So I'm hoping many people watch and discuss this movie.

    As an aside, yesterday I was watching a video in which Trevor Noah (The Daily Show) was interviewing a 24-year-old white commentator. (Tomi something-or-other.) There was this painful moment in which she didn't seem to understand why her comparing Black Lives Matter to the KKK was false equivalency. Holy crap. Aside from the obvious gap in logic, she didn't seem to grasp the significance of the KKK in US history. This shook me up a bit. I started wondering...is my kids' generation woefully under-educated about history (not to mention basic critical thinking)? Do they even have the tools they need to engage in the tough discussions about racism that so desperately need to happen? Ugh.

    Sorry for the rambling post. I may look for Birth of a Nation on Amazon this weekend.

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    1. "It seems that most white people appreciate stories about fighting racism as long as they don't challenge their comfort level." This is what I was getting at. It's also why I don't think this was destined to be huge at the box office even if there were no scandal.

      Interesting story about The Daily Show. I'm going to have to find that clip. Yes, equating BLM to the KKK is definitely false equivalency. I don't think this is a generational problem, but a refusal to understand why history dictates certain things are necessary. These are people who find "reverse racism" in everything. The general idea is the same as the one that helped Mr. Trump win the presidency: the elevation of others, if only to be being treated fairly, is an attack on white rights. And I've had these conversations with white people I know in real life ever since I was a teenager. I once had a roommate in the Army who couldn't understand why black people still had any beef with America since slavery ended so long ago. Sigh.

      Anyhoo, not sure if The Birth of a Nation is on Amazon, yet, but hope you see it soon. I would love to hear your take on it.

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    2. "It's also why I don't think this was destined to be huge at the box office even if there were no scandal."--> I'm sure you're right. For one thing, many people go to the cinema to be entertained, not to see something that's painful to watch. Which is fair enough, I guess. Second, I suspect that most white people are comfortable with the narrative that slaves just bore their lot humbly until Lincoln came along and liberated them. (I'm having flashbacks to reading Uncle Tom's Cabin in college.)So a slave rebellion isn't going to draw them out as a revolutionary war movie would (as you pointed out.)

      I agree with everything in your second paragraph. We have definitely seen a parade of straight white men who've watched their shrinking privilege and feel they're being marginalized and discriminated against. (White women too, no doubt)And I've been amazed at how many white people (before we all got "woke" in this past year :-)) seemed convinced that if we'd just stop talking about racial issues, and if Al Sharpton would shut up and go home, everything would be fine. Oh, mon dieu.

      Love the fact that your roommate seemed to think racial discrimination ended after the Civil War. :-/ We have a nation of people who slept through their US history classes.

      Thanks for the discussion.

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    3. "We have a nation of people who slept through their US history classes." Yup.

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  11. I had read about it and the fallout for the poor girl and the initial reaction from Parker. Your review covered so much. I haven't read enough positive reviews to make me see it.

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  12. Interesting review.

    I haven't seen the movie. I might see it if it was streaming somewhere. Since it made little at the box office I'm assuming they're probably going the streaming route since if people were not comfortable paying a ticket because of the scandal, they're probably not going to pay for a download either.

    Anyway I thought it was interesting that you pointed out it's relevance regarding religion and current events. I can see how a movie about a Christian preacher who is also a leader of rebellion that committed acts of violence may possibly be uncomfortable for other Christian Americans to see. I suppose it's the notion that perpetrators of violence is the Other, not someone who looks or has the same faith as you - just like you said about the general Western view "That is, having all Muslims being portrayed as terrorists hell-bent on destroying the western way of life in the name of Allah". I don't know how much of it has been reported on western media, but the radical Islamists don't just attack Western countries, they attack those that don't subscribe to their ideology including other Muslims; during the last Ramadhan period (a Muslim holy month), if I remember it correctly, a few Muslim countries were attacked including a Muslim holy city.

    "That's something many whites are simply unable to do unless they themselves are the terrorists. In other words, the colonists taking up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War is somehow different from Nat Turner's revolt pretty much just because." - It was treason wasn't it and not all of the people in the colonies supported the Revolutionary War because it was treason right? Whatever happen to them, not really something that's often depicted on screen because it probably doesn't fit the freedom fighter narrative.

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    1. Thanks.

      It'll be interesting to see if this one does go the streaming route, and how fast.

      Here in the U.S., we get heavy coverage on things that happen on our soil and of major attacks in European countries. There is very little coverage, if any, on attacks against Muslim countries. I suspect that's because that doesn't fit the narrative that's been pushed to this point.

      It's true that not all of the colonists supported the Revolutionary War. However, that's become an ignored part of history. Again, and like you said, it's something that doesn't fit the preferred narrative. As "good" Americans, we're to believe everyone was united in the cause - getting out from under British rule.

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  13. Haven't watched this, but judging from your review and the Parker's case, I think there's some kind of juxtaposition, which I'm intrigued to see.

    Great writings! Very thought-provoking

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