Birth of a Nation, The (2016)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/07/16 23:54:31
When the historical drama “The Birth of a Nation” had its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, it was an instant sensation that won both the festival’s Grand Jury and Audience Awards for dramatic features, scored a record-breaking $17.5 million distribution deal with Fox Searchlight, whose previous foray into the slave trade, “12 Years a Slave,” gave them an Oscar-winning worldwide hit, made an instant media sensation, in more ways than one, out of Nate Parker, who not only stars in the film but wrote, produced and directed it as well and became an instant front-runner in the 2016 Oscar race even before the winners of the 2015 edition were announced. Unfortunately, a film hitting it big at Sundance, more often than not, tends to serve as a warning as to the dangers of trying to judge art in an improperly oxygenated atmosphere than anything else—remember the huzzahs that greeted films ranging from “The Spitfire Grill” and “Happy, Texas” to “Like Crazy” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”? Even with that knowledge, people will still no doubt go into Parker’s film expecting something heady, profound and provocative and maybe because of the inherent power of the subject matter, they may even convince themselves that it was indeed all that. However, if they are honest with themselves and judge the film strictly on its inherent artistic qualities, they may find it the dramatically inert and oftentimes infuriating exercise in ego run amok that takes truly powerful source material and reduces it to the kind of reductive revenge drama that Charles Bronson ran out the clock on his career doing.That material deals with Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia who in 1831 led a violent uprising of his fellow slaves in which at least 55 white people—men, women and children—were brutally murdered before he was finally apprehended and hung for his crimes. The events of his life and his transformation from a slave to the leader of the bloodiest pre-Civil War slave insurrection would be recounted in two items entitled “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” one a pamphlet put together by Virginia attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray that purported to be Turner’s own words from the jailhouse while awaiting his hanging and one a controversial 1967 best-sellerl by William Styron that came out during another period of great unrest in American history. Coming at a time when America is facing the kind of racial strife not seen in decades, from unarmed men being shot down with depressing regularity to #OscarsSoWhite, now is the perfect time to once again revisit Turner’s story and what it says about where we were back then and where we are heading today.
As the film opens, we are introduced to Nat as a small child who is taken out to the woods to meet some kind of mystical holy man who looks at some markings on his chest and immediately declares him to be a prophet that everyone will listen to one day. For the time being, he lives with his family on a cotton plantation owned by the rich and powerful Turner family where he has yet to be personally inducted into the horrors of slavery—he even gets to run and play with Sam, the young son of his master. However, he is not fully isolated for what is going on and one night, he witnesses his father fighting off a couple of slave hunters and being forced to take off, never to be seen again. Despite his tender years, Nat is already a verbal whiz and Sam’s mother (Penelope Ann Miller) takes notice and brings him into the house to teach him how to read properly from the Bible in a move of pure altruism. Alas, when her husband dies, Nat is sent to work in the fields for the first time (cue the symbolic moment where he pricks his finger and drips blood on a piece of cotton).
As he turns into an adult (and now played by Parker), Nat maintains a certain friendship with Sam (Armie Hammer) and even manages to convince him to purchase a woman that he instantly falls for when he sees her being sold at a slave auction—eventually, once she, now called Cherry (Aja Naomi King), will wind up marrying him. At this time, Samuel has fallen on hard times and reluctantly decides to exploit his friend’s gift for Biblical oration by renting him out to other slave owners to pacify their property by preaching a Gospel that highlights how the Bible itself deems slavery a good and righteous thing (leaving out all the stuff condemning it, naturally). As they tour these plantations, Nat begins to have his eyes opened to the cruelties inflicted upon the slaves by their masters (including one grisly example of forced feeding) and when Samuel is back in the chips again, he begins to treat his childhood friend like a slave and even orders a brutal whipping for the crime of baptizing a white man on his property. Compounding those horrors, Cherry is violently raped by a group of slave traders (led, perhaps inevitably, by a creepy-as-ever Jackie Earle Haley) and Esther (Gabrielle Union), the wife of his friend Hark (Colman Domingo), is also made to act as a sexual slave at Samuel’s insistence. Finally pushed to the edge, Nat decides the time for turning the other cheek is over and begins to plot his revolt against his masters.
Hollywood has been trying off and on to make a film about Nat Turner’s story for years now—Norman Jewison was set to do it at one point—and after watching “The Birth of a Nation,” I found myself wishing that the wait could have gone on a little longer. Instead of being the powerful piece of agitprop that its proponents have suggested it to be, it is little more than an African-American riff on “Braveheart” (which Parker has cited as a key influence on the film) that is more concerned with showing off Parker’s dubious abilities on both sides of the camera than in the story at hand. While a simple and straightforward depiction of the events at hand might have had a devastating impact on viewers, Parker seems content on layering every possibly accoutrement of tacky big-screen heroic narratives—a highly stylized visual approach, a soaring musical score, a ham-fisted screenplay that reduces everything to a conventional revenge saga instead of dealing with the more truthful and troubling realities and scenes of violence that have been designed to send viewers into a fury of bloodlust that to regard them with sorrow and revulsion. (That said, Parker makes sure to avoid any indication that children were killed during the revolt.) I didn’t much care for “12 Years a Slave” because I was ultimately unable to reconcile the story it was telling with the pronounced visual aesthetic favored by director Steve McQueen—every scene felt like a photo from an art installation about “Slavery”—but compared to “The Birth of a Nation,” that film almost feels like one of those rough-and-ready Dogme productions by comparison. Virtually every scene contains some kind of image or effect that has less to do with the story and more to do with Parker trying to insist that he is also an Artist. It is hard to pick which one of these moments aggravated me the most but showing a final tableau of perfectly arranged lynching victims dangling from the trees while Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” plays on the soundtrack will certainly suffice.
Parker’s greatest sin as a director is the way that he favors Parker the actor throughout in ways that are downright distracting for much of the time. Yes, Turner is meant to be a truly exceptional, gifted and charismatic individual but Parker’s performance seems more interested in demonstrating just how exceptional, gifted and charismatic he himself is. There is never the sense that we are seeing the gradual radicalization of someone who was once content. Instead, we seem to be watching a long and expensive promo reel designed to show off Parker to the masses—he charms, cries, rages and rebels like nobody’s business and during the sequence in which he is brutally whipped (which the film seems weirdly eager to present), he channels his inner Mel Gibson with a sequence in which the violence is almost as excruciating as the crucifixion imagery that underlines it with what could charitably be deemed a lack of subtlety. Worst of all, Parker commits the sin of making himself the center of scenes that have precious little to do with him. Consider the moment when we bear terrible witness to Cherry after her rape that has left her badly beaten, emotionally shattered and with a face swollen to the point where it is hardly recognizable. Instead of putting the focus squarely on her and forcing us to regard the kind of atrocity that used to be considered nothing special once upon a time, we see her just long enough so that the makeup registers with those responsible for Oscar nominations in that category and spends the rest of the time focusing on Turner/Parker rather than letting her character’s suffering dominate the proceedings for even a second. (As bad as this moment would have been under any circumstance, it becomes almost completely unbearable when you factor in the real-life charges of sexual assault leveled against Parker from an incident when he was in college and his less-than-edifying responses to it in the media since the news broke a couple of months ago.)“The Birth of a Nation” has exactly two things going for it in the end—a title that appropriates the name of one of the most famous (and infamously racist) film in Hollywood history in a symbolic attempt to suggest that it is the work of someone determined to present a more realistic version of the period to viewers to underscore how little things have changed (it doesn’t come close, but it is the thought that counts) and a provocative final image of a black Union soldier in the Civil War firing his gun directly at the audience. In between those two high-water marks is a movie that feels like the kind of artistic sham that the industry has been churning out for decades that places grisly violence and even-grislier star turns above everything else. When one reads Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” even those who deride it as cultural appropriation come away from it with the sense that it was a story that he truly felt that he needed to tell. Watching “The Birth of a Nation,” one gets the sense that Nate Parker saw the award and box-office hauls earned by “12 Years a Slave” and thought “Hey, I want one of those.”
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