Sunday, October 09, 2016
The Birth of a Nation
We need films like Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, but we need them to be better. To tell the truth about the shortcomings of The Birth of a Nation doesn't feel especially brave now, but after the film screened to an ecstatic audience at Sundance earlier this year and then was sold for a record-breaking price it was hard to find a disparaging word about it. Part of the rush to take down the film has to do with Parker himself; the director/star appeared to be surprised that an old rape charge resurfaced in the time between Sundance and the film's release. (For more details, read this.) But there are aesthetic reasons to dislike The Birth of a Nation as well, and as someone who has reviewed Woody Allen films without discussing the director's personal life I can hardly review The Birth of a Nation based on the fact Parker might be a rapist and is at best a creep.
The Birth of a Nation is the story of Nat Turner (played by Parker), a slave who in 1831 led a rebellion in which many white slaveowners and their families were brutally murdered. (The film puts that number at about 60.) In an opening scene the young Nat is hailed as a prophet during a sort of mystic ceremony, and it's part of the conceit of Birth of a Nation that Turner (who later sees visions) is connected to things beyond this world. Unlike Solomon Northup, whose story was the basis for 12 Years a Slave, Turner was born a slave and was only taught to read due to the intervention of the wife (Penelope Ann Miller) of the man who owned him. The film makes clear that Turner was taught the Bible while being denied access to works of literature and science, and indeed Turner later takes the justifications for his actions from Scripture. Parker's script pays lip service to the idea that white slaveowners used Christianity as a means of control - Turner's new master (Armie Hammer) makes money by renting him out as an itinerant preacher who is expected to preach subservience to other slaves - but the film never goes beneath Turner's surface-level anger.
The bulk of The Birth of a Nation is a series of indignities visited upon Turner, his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and other slaves. Parker has an irritating habit of placing the person or thing he wants us to pay attention to right at the center of the frame, and his shot selection is a reflection of the film's overall feeling of a headlong charge. He is working in a different key from Steve McQueen, who in 12 Years a Slave found obscenity and suffering both at the most basic human level and in the way that slaves were used as a form of currency. Parker's bluntness is the wrong kind of bluntness for this story. Spike Lee would not have been shy about making an explicit connection between Turner's fury and the activism of King, Malcolm X, Black Lives Matter, and others, but instead we get a weird flash forward in which a young boy who encountered Turner and his rebels is shown as a member of the Union Army during the Civil War. Nate Parker appears to believe that Turner's physical bravery is the most important thing about him, and his choices result in a disappointing and shallow film.