Monday, October 10, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (**1/2)

The Birth of a Nation
Written, Produced and Directed by Nate Parker


Nat Turner is a historical figure that too little has been made of. Actor Nate Parker has decided to give him the biopic treatment. In The Birth of a Nation, Parker is taking a man who's claim to fame is leading a bloody slave revolt and attempting to make his story palatable to the masses. He ties the violence of Turner's movement in with Turner's wide-ranging spirituality. Turner sees white slave masters using the Bible and the word of God as a weapon against dehumanized slaves, and he's able to snatch that weapon and turn it on them, if only for a short while. The revolt he led was only 48 hours long, but Parker's film is much more ambitious in the scope of story. It values context and build-up, and longs to show you that Turner was more than just a bloodthirsty man seeking vengeance, but also a strong, God-fearing, obedient man worn down by the inhumanities of slavery. Parker's film is unafraid to show these atrocities in their most explicit form. He's seeking visceral reactions, and getting them. For his first feature, Parker definitely has guts, and he's smart enough as a storyteller to link the horrid details of the past with troubling details from the present. But for all its striking imagery, The Birth of a Nation still buckles under the weight of being a complete film, like a cause without a strict message.

Parker wrote, produced and directed this film and to top it all off, he gave himself the leading role of Nat Turner, a born slave who bore three birthmarks on his chest that some believed would prove significance in the future. He was chosen for great things. Living with his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and grandmother (Esther Scott), Nat lives on the Turner plantation, and as a boy, he snatches a book and teaches himself to read. When the lady of the house, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), elects to bring Nat into the house so she can further nurture Nat's ability, Nat's mother is afraid - usually literacy is punished amongst slaves - but Elizabeth keeps her word and further helps Nat craft his reading skills, using almost exclusively The Bible as her tool. Just as the young Nat is beginning to truly master his reading skills, the Turner patriarch dies of illness and leaves a dying wish that Nat be turned back into field work (a dramatic flourish - a dying man oppressing his slaves even as he passes on - which this screenplay provides many of). So, Nat grows into a man, a cotton picker like his peers, but he still keeps his literacy and he uses it to become a preacher for the lost souls he shares the fields with. As an adult, the plantation now belongs to the eldest Turner son, Samuel (Armie Hammer, in a beard that's 80% on his neck), a well-meaning alcoholic who isn't prone to cruelty, but who also values his pride more than the lives of his slaves.

There are two major moments that change the course of Nat's life. The first is when he convinces Samuel to buy a young wench at a local slave auction. Her name is Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and Nat mostly yearns to keep her out of the lecherous hands of other slave buyers looking to use her as a sex doll. Nat cleverly convinces Samuel that Cherry would make the perfect wedding present for Samuel's younger sister Catherine (Katie Garfield). With Cherry close by, Nat falls in love and soon they are married. The second moment that effects Nat is when Samuel learns that he can make money visiting other plantations with a literate negro preaching to them the righteous virtues of respecting your masters. With unrest quickly growing amongst the brutality of slavery, many plantation owners would pay good money to have a negro explain to their slaves how the Bible preaches absolute obedience to your master. Living in debt, Samuel tours Nat around local slave homes and watches as Nat reads scripture in front of broken bodies and tear-stained faces. The slave owners don't care too much for how religious Nat's words are - they say so explicitly - they just want to make sure that Nat's message is clear: any pushback against their subhuman treatment will be met with a wrath supported by God. As Nat's work proves successful, Samuel's debt shrinks as his pockets fill with the cash he gains from Nat's services.

It's only economical for Samuel. Nat preaches through the birth of his daughter, through the evolution of his life on the Turner plantation and the growth of his family with Cherry, but his work takes a psychological toll. It seems with each plantation they visit, they're privy to more and more ghastly inhumanity. He watches in silence as one slave owner force feeds a slave through a funnel after knocking out all of his teeth. The tension builds until Nat's patience boils over. His frustration leads to rebellion, and when it's clear that Samuel cares not for Nat as a man, but only as a money-making tool, the final straw is broken. If it feels like I'm explaining the plot of the entire film, it's because The Birth of a Nation truly takes its time before getting to the most significant aspect of Nat Turner's life. Parker can't seem to justify Turner's final actions without ninety minutes of heart-wrenching build-up, and then by the time we've gotten to the payoff, we're all bloody pulps. The film's final act is supposed to be its most intense, and it is, but Parker selects to treat the rebellion with spirited triumph, as if Nation is making the case that some matters of violence are righteous and others are not. Furthermore, Parker explicitly connects Turner's obedience to scripture to the rebellion's efforts which works as a nice piece of dramatic irony but the film doesn't seem to understand that its ironic. I didn't care for the linking of gruesome violence with spiritual grace when Iñárritu did it in The Revenant, and at best it's problematic here.

The significance of Nat Turner can't be understated. He proves that not all African slaves stood with weakness in the face of horrific white oppression. The film's final moments describes the efforts made toward trying to prevent Nat Turner's story from getting too public; whites did not want people to know that African slaves were capable of rising up against whites. Who knows how many Nat Turners there were that were successfully scrubbed from history. Which is why it becomes a bit frustrating to me that Parker chooses to outlay the story in such a traditional form. Parker crafted the screenplay himself, but the story credit goes to him and Jean McGianni Celestin. There is no source material credited, no referenced text listed. Which only leads the viewer to the conclusion that's obvious on the screen: Parker wants this tale of violence begetting violence to be easily consumed, and crafts it to fit into a very standard screenwriting format. The horror of the content is enough to be compelling, but there isn't enough actual story to take the kind of macro view that Parker is attempting here. Another recent release that reveled in the glory of African slave retaliation is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. While that film is also very problematic, Tarantino gives Django some real narrative dexterity. The silliness of watching the bloodbath in Django makes a lot more sense than the sentimental romanticism in Nation. In a way, I can understand how Parker can believe that the pure evil of slavery is enough for narrative conflict, but the end result is a film that seems to lack real bite.

I would probably call myself a Nate Parker fan. Of all the hats he wears for Nation, the most successful is easily as an actor, where he masters the inner turmoil of Turner through the series of atrocities that he visits in the first half of the film. Supporting performances from King, Scott and Ellis, as three women at the center of Nat's life, give the film a necessary tenderness. All three women are victimized, and their strength is matched only by their patience. Too often the lives of these women are jeopardized by the behavior of the men they love (an early scene involving Scott's grandmother and a can of food is truly one of the movie's strongest, most telling moments), and too often the stories of these women and their sacrifices go untold. Parker still relegates their lives to the periphery of Nat Turner's story, but it still feels refreshing to see them represented as fully-formed characters. But in the end Nation begins and ends with Parker. Nation's Sundance premiere was a sensation, and the film was bought by Fox Searchlight in the most expensive distribution deal in the festival's history. The sale came at a time when Hollywood was wrestling with controversies including #OscarsSoWhite, and Nation was being marketed as the film that would fix it half a year before its release. I'm not sure any film could withstand that kind of expectation. And that's when the film was derailed by the revelation of Parker's past discretion: a sexual assault charge that he shared with writing partner Celestin nearly a decade earlier. This is when watching The Birth of a Nation become a different kind of moral decision.

How does one separate the art from its artist? You can't really. The degree to which we forgive someone for their misdeeds is always relative, and with artists we often find ourselves grappling with the work and the person who made it. This is part of the reason Elena Ferrante sought anonymity, and why there's such an uproar that a journalist took that away from her. In cinema alone, we must reconcile the off screen behavior of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen for their dalliances - both accused and otherwise - with younger women. We hear about the lewd, harrowing behavior of Dennis Hopper and William Friedkin, and their penchant for the kind of self-destruction that actually takes down all around them worse. We generally choose to accept that the art stands alone, and that the artist functions differently within the form than outside it. Nate Parker's past history with alleged sexual assault is troubling, and his response to it hasn't helped matters. Before the controversy, The Birth of a Nation fought the enviable task of trying to meet grandiose expectations. Now, it's simply trying to play in theaters without reminding audiences of what he's been accused of. The incredible Roxane Gay wrote a piece about her feelings on the matter in The New York Times, and it's worth a read if for nothing else to get a nuanced but direct response to the art v. artist debate.

So if nothing else, The Birth of a Nation walks into theaters with the burden of being "important", while also trying to overcome the misdeeds of its creator. Its hard for audiences to watch this film without being influenced by either end of this spectrum, and because of that, there seems to be an unfairness in how we will absorb it. After all, there are hundreds of people that do good work both in front and behind the camera in Nation that are not named Nate Parker, and yet he is the face on the poster and the name beneath the title. We all strive toward objectivity, but that's an impossible ideal. The truth is that The Birth of a Nation is a strong debut, but far from a strong stand alone film. It should have never been put in this position to save Hollywood from its race problem, because it tells the story simply, the way Hollywood would have wanted to tell this story if any major studio had been brave enough to touch it. I'm still glad its out there. The audacity of the title alone (like Turner stole God's word from the slave owners, Parker steals the title of D.W. Griffith's controversial landmark film from 1915) gives the movie the kind of tonal significance missing in a lot of movies dealing in the concepts of race in America. I just wish the rest of the film had held onto that audacious feeling.


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