Friday, October 07, 2016

THE BIRTH OF A NATION: Powerful But Extremely Problematic

Now playing at a multiplex or indie art house near you:

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Dir. Nate Parker, 2016)

I can’t remember the last time I was so conflicted over a movie. As many film writers have noted in the case of actor/writer/director/producer Nate Parker’s biopic of slave revolutionary Nat Turner, this is one of the hardest times ever to separate the art from the artist.

For 17 years ago, while attending Pennsylvania State University, Parker and the film’s screenwriter, Jean McGianni Celestin, who were then roommates and wrestling teammates, were accused of raping a fellow student. Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault, but it was later overturned. The accuser, after years of struggling with depression and addiction, committed suicide in 2012.

It was impossible for me to get any of that out of my mind while watching this film. That said, there were moments, maybe even full sequences, where Parker’s film almost transcended his scandal. Almost.

Parker posits his film about Turner as a historical hero’s origin story; a prestige piece of supreme Oscar bait with a sweeping score, impassioned speeches, and soaring camerawork over the countryside.

The countryside in this case being the woods and swamps of Savannah, Georgia standing in for the woods and swamps of Southampton County, Virginia, where the real Turner’s slave uprising took place.

Parker portrays Turner as a scared man constantly reeling from the everyday torture and suffering of his fellow slaves. Except for the opening, in which we meet Turner as a child played by Tony Espinosa (and learn that the boy can read), the film takes place entirely in 1831, in which we witness Turner being exploited by his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) as a preacher to be rented out to other plantations.

On one of their journeys, Nat encourages his owner to buy a young slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), because he’s smitten with her. Not long afterward, Nat and Cherry wed and start a family, but, of course, there’s no happily ever after here.

There are some excruciatingly gruesome scenes in which we see the horrific conditions and treatment of slaves up close – enough to make some people leave the screening I attended – but the camera cuts before rape occurs – and yes, it occurs a number of times, including a dark scene in which Cherry gets assaulted by a group of slave hunters led by Jackie Earle Haley at his most sinister.

Sparked by such evil and what he takes as a sign from God, a solar eclipse, Turner starts holding meetings in the middle of the night with other slaves to plan their rebellion.

This culminates in the ultra violent last third in which Turner and his fellow slaves travel from plantation to plantation slaughtering slave owners and their families until they themselves get mostly slaughtered in the climactic battle scene with a army of white men at a gun distillery. Turner escapes this fate but is caught two months later and is hanged.

Of course, as with any biopic or historical adaptation, filmmakers take a lot of “artistic license” in order to make movies with more dramatic impact, but Parker and Celestin’s vision of Parker takes way too many liberties with what’s on record.

Making Turner’s motivation to revolt being as a result of his wife being raped, which by all accounts didn’t happen, is a wildly inaccurate portrayal, and a curious one considering how unapologetic Parker is about his past (see his recent 60 Minutes interview). It turns Turner’s tale into one of simple revenge instead of the real revolution that went down against the oppression of an entire race.

Parker and his cast including Aunjanue Ellis, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, and Penelope Ann Miller put in solid performances, but I doubt there will be any acting Oscars awarded as no character is fleshed out beyond broad strokes. The cinematography by Elliot Davis is pretty perfunctory as well, with shots that just sit there.

I’m torn because despite those faulty elements there is passion and purpose on the screen at times that’s hard to deny, and I believe Parker and Co. truly believe they have a powerful and important story to tell – one that has a lot of topical validity especially as I consider how the audience reacted to the line “they’re killing people for no reason except being black” – but too many things feel off about THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

I understand why the title was chosen as Parker said that it’s ironic as his film is the antithesis of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic that made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan, but I bet that that re-heated title is just going to be another strike against it in the long run.

I know from working at an indie theater that is opening Parker’s film that there’s a lot of moviegoers who are going to reject it because I’ve heard things like “I’ve saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE, why do I need to see this?” Normally I would think that that was a cynical position, but I hate to say that with the questionable quality of this film and the filmmaker’s troubling back story, that’s a pretty fair question.

So where does that leave me and this review? The most I can say for the film is that it is indeed powerful in parts, and worth seeing if you think you can get past Parker and his screenwriter’s past.

But what may be more powerful is what Sharon Loeffler, the sister of both men’s accuser, recently wrote in a column in Variety entitled Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ Exploits My Sister All Over Again. When Loeffler writes that Parker and Celestin abused their power over her sibling, it’s difficult not to agree with her that their incredibly flawed film is yet another abuse of their power.

More later...

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