Monday, October 17, 2016

A HOLLOW FURY: a review of "The Birth Of The Nation"

Story by Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin
Written, Produced and Directed by Nate Parker
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

It is truly a shame that a film bold enough to reclaim a title such as this one is unfortunately also a film that ultimately rings so very hollow, becoming a powerful disappointment for a motion picture that should have been unflinching, incendiary and absolutely essential.

In college, as I embarked upon obtaining my Communication Arts degree with a concentration in film, radio and television, I, at one point, was instructed with viewing D.W. Griffith's "The Birth Of A Nation" (1915). For those of you who may be completely unfamiliar with the film and its importance within the legacy of the entire medium of film and motion picture arts and artistry, Griffith's silent movie was instrumental and innovative in its utilization of editing as a form of storytelling, in addition to its usages of subtitles, night photography, panning, close ups, a variety of camera angles and other techniques, all of which are still utilized in 21st century filmmaking.

Yet for all of its artistic triumphs, Griffith's film is also eternally controversial and reprehensible to a sickening degree for its racist depictions of African Americans (including some characters portrayed by White actors in blackface) and for, most notably, presenting the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, certainly presenting a collection of emotional, conceptual and philosophical conundrums I had to deal with being an African American male having to study this film during which I was obligated to appreciate while also wishing to stone the screen for having to watch it at all.

By contrast, there was never any point, either during Lower, Middle, High School or even college, where I learned about Nat Turner, the enslaved African American who staged  and led a 48 hour rebellion of slaves and free Black people in Southampton, VA in the summer of 1831. Between 55 to 65 whites were killed during the uprising yet afterwards, and through retaliation from white militias, over 200 Black people were murdered and Nat Turner himself was executed. That discrepancy, the determination of teaching the fullness of film history when compared with American history, in an of itself, is an educational travesty and infuriatingly indicative of our nation's educational system as a whole.

In some ways, it feels that Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation," which details the story of Nat Turner, is not only designed to right some wrongs, inform the wider public about this crucial piece of American history while mirroring our nation's past to its turbulent present regarding race relations and the controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, it is also a cunning attempt to use all of D.W. Griffith's cinematic advancements and even his own title against him with the full reclaiming and re-branding of its moniker. To that end, Parker has indeed delivered his passion project with righteous fury but unfortunately, and surprisingly so, the experience as a whole felt unfulfilling and even disingenuous enough to render the entire proceedings as unacceptably hollow. "The Birth Of A Nation," by no means a bad film, is disappointingly manipulative instead of utilizing the truth of the information and drama inherent in this unforgivable chapter in our nation's history in being urgently persuasive in its message about the consequences that occur when the persecuted have been abused too much, too far and for too long.

Opening in Southampton, VA circa 1809, Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation,"in which Parker also stars as Nat Turner, we meet our protagonist as a child born into slavery. Possesseing a natural inclination towards reading, Turner is taken under the wing of his first slave master Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) and is taught to read and study selected portions of the Bible. As an adult, and now owned by his second slave master, Elizabeth's son and Nat's childhood playmate Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), Nat Turner eventually become a preacher to not only placate the slaves on their plantation and soon, slaves throughout the region, but to also help bring profits to the cash-strapped Turners.

Throughout his life as he continues to preach Nat Turner not only marries the slave Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King), he witnesses one atrocity after another, forcing him to internally explore, examine and question the only life that he has ever been allowed to know with the words of the Bible as his ultimate conduit. With his superior gifts for language, public speaking and an ever increasing proficiency with the Scriptures, Nat Turner takes what was once tools of subjugation and transforms them all into the tools of uprising, formulating the very rebellion against any and all oppressors with the hopes of obtaining freedom.

To offer a bit of a confession to all of you, I have long held some conflicted feelings towards Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation" both before and after having seen the film. It is a film that I have long felt obligated to see as it pertains to a portion of Black and American history which speaks entirely to the notions of slavery, freedom, protest, civil rights, holocaust, retaliation, revenge, retribution, morality and humanity. But truth be told, I was a little bit hesitant.

My trepidation had nothing to do with any sense of potential quality as the film had already won the Audience Award and the U.S. Grand Jury Award for Best Dramatic Feature at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. I guess what may have been troubling me was that there is just this part of me that is growing weary of slave epics--not that there have been so terribly many in recent years but because it it beginning to feel to me as if in the eyes of Hollywood, Black people do not exist in the present, in the 21st century and the only stories that can be told about us have to be ones where we are relegated completely into our pasts within stories of voyaging through enslavement into emancipation.

Yes, I have given ratings of the highest marks to those of Quentin Tarantino's audacious, extraordinary "Django Unchained" (2012) and Steve McQueen's elegantly devastating "12 Years A Slave" (2013), and the need for a film of the nature of Parker's is downright essential, especially as he is clearly holding up a much needed mirror to ourselves comparing past to present. Additionally, I deeply appreciated the sheer boldness of Parker reclaiming the film's title from its racist origins to showcase the fact that our very nation was indeed birthed from the blood, violence, rape, and near genocide of people of color at the hands of Whites. The intensity and urgency of Nate Parker's moral outrage is firmly contained and deeply palpable. Even so, and all of that being said, I was not certain if I really wished to sit through even one more on-screen depiction of my race's degradation--especially as I am able to turn on the television or the internet and be witness to the same levels of senseless degradation every single day, from unarmed Black people being murdered in the streets by police and vigilantes or watching those of us in silent protest enduring the slings and arrows of those against us or even regarding the shameful disrespect launched against our very own president for the last eight years.

Then, there is the real world controversy surrounding Nate Parker himself as he was accused and eventually acquitted of a rape charge during his time as a student at Penn State in 1999. Regarding this aspect of Parker himself, I will not weigh in yet, I do feel that his personal issues are also weaved into our perceptions of his film and the themes contain therein because whatever we may think or feel about Nate Parker due to his controversy, all of those elements do indeed speak to the perceptions, fears and realities of being a Black male in America, an existence that has grown increasingly perilous as we have all witnessed and has in turn inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Essentially, Parker's real life troubles ended up providing an unnecessary obstacle that has indeed clouded a bit of his artistic achievements with this film.

Controversy aside, I can only comment upon what I saw upon the silver screen and I have to say after now having seen the fruits of Parker's labors, I remain conflicted. There is no doubt that Nate Parker clearly has talent to burn and that he is passionate about his subject matter. But I do feel that his passion for the life and legacy of Nat Turner got in the way of his storytelling and just presenting the truth as is and without succumbing to certain embellishments that ultimately deflated the entire experience.

Where Parker succeeded greatly for me was rather scattershot as he was able to deliver a variety of visual images and moments that linger powerfully and rightfully disturbingly. The image of a White girl skipping with her slave playmate, complete with a rope leash around the slave's neck as if she were a dog. The sequence where a slave's teeth were bashed out with a hammer as punishment for a hunger strike. Most certainly, what I felt to be was the film's most sobering and horrific image: a fleet of Black Americans, all hanging dead from trees with Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" as soundtrack commentary. And as with McQueen's film (although to a much lesser effect), Nate Parker was also able to capture a certain mundane quality to the Antebellum South, an eerie calmness that belies the rampant inhumanity abound. And then, there is the full performance is Nate Parker himself as Nat Turner during which I was struck by the breadth of his emotional range which was portrayed in subtle, nuanced fashion and the slow burn of realization to rage is indicative of (I believe) most African Americans in this country as we all slowly come face-to-face with a nation who has never thought of us as human beings and has been indifferent at best to an suffering we have experienced at the hands of racism. As Cherry Ann expresses solemnly once the retaliation against Blacks roars through the South late in the film, "They're killing people everywhere for no reason at all but being Black."  

Yet even so, the emotions I felt during "The Birth Of A Nation" were few and far between, only experienced in fits and starts, not cumulatively whatsoever. In some respects, Parker's film never truly felt remotely lived in, so to speak. Everything felt to be somewhat upon the surface and never delved deeply, making for an experience that should have been righteously uncomfortable instead of something that felt like the "greatest hits" of a cinematic slavery epic.

Returning to Tarantino's "Django Unchained," is it very odd to me that a film that was so very stylized, over the top and completely fabricated with Tarantino's specialized brand of cinematic artifice and showmanship would ultimately unearth and deliver an explosively vibrant and blood boiling sense of moral outrage as well as a greater truth to the nightmare of slavery. Tarantino did indeed somehow delve deeper and deeper beneath the surface of all of the cinematic conventions of the slave epic while also presenting them, challenging them, and even upending them in order to serve his revenge fantasy that gave me a rare sense of riveting fury and deliverance as I experienced it, and that is entirely because he honored the truth, despite the fantastical elements of his film.

By contrast, Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation" almost feels like a hair like Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" (2014), a film that is admittedly effective but to an irresponsible degree. While Parker's film doesn't entirely fall into the dangerous propaganda of Eastwood's film, his storytelling approach, tone and disregard for facts and just allowing the film to present the truth, instead forces his efforts to fall into the traps of prefabricated plot devices and needless melodrama.

One aspect of Nat Turner's life the film presented well enough and I wish delved into more explicitly was his devout religious nature combined with his gifts with the layers of language. Yes, Parker illustrates Turner's discoveries that one passage of the Scriptures could be interpreted as a means for the righteousness of slavery whereas another could dismantle it entirely, thus inspiring retaliation.

Again, here is a point where Parker was extremely sharp, as he is indeed challenging all of us to really think about the Bible as what it really is, a man made object constructed as an interpretation of the word of God--and by the very means of the process of interpretation, the same words can posses different meanings to different people and therefore, different attitudes, actions and consequences may arrive from those varied interpretations. Yet, Parker's viewpoint is not presented through the lens of atheism as he also showcases Nat Turner's adherence to the word of God, which is represented through a collection of spiritual visions, which inspired the path his life ultimately embarked upon. This aspect of the film was strong enough to explore to an even deeper degree that I wished Parker explored those avenues to an even greater depth rather than how he did choose to present his film.

As it goes with any historically based film, there arrive questions of historical inaccuracies and from a variety of sources that I have happened to have seen, most especially, within an article written for The Nation by Dr. Leslie M. Alexander, "The Birth Of A Nation" is apparently, and inexcusably, rampant with such inaccuracies. Now I did, in fact, see a portion of a "60 Minutes" interview with Nate Parker and I did find myself more than troubled with his flippant remarks concerning any sense of historical falsehood contained in the film by remarking that his movie is indeed based on a true story and that no film is ever 100% accurate. To that, I cry foul, especially when creating a dramatic feature that is steeped within our own cultural, racial and national history Parker owes it to all of us, and African Americans especially to do his damnedest to get the facts absolutely right--for the benefit of our collective knowledge and even for those who are reluctant at best to even try to listen to the truth of the matter. How will anyone ever listen or even possibly empathize with the struggle of or people is we cannot even begin to tell our own stories correctly?

It seems that much of what was presented during the slave rebellion sequence of the film has been fabricated, from story driven killings--one of which centers around a film length conflict and final confrontation between Nat Turner and a lifelong nemesis/antagonist as depicted in the character of Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley)--to even complete battles, which some historians have proclaimed never occurred as depicted.

And then, there is indeed the matter of rape.

While the rape of Nat Turner's wife at the hands of a group of slave patrollers (one of whom is the character of Raymond Cobb) is not shown on-screen, nor is another with a surprisingly silent character portrayed by Gabrielle Union, both sequences are deeply troublesome not because of their subject matter, for the rapes of Black women by white slave masters was unquestionably crucial to the unforgivable slaver experience. These sequences are troublesome due to their disingenuous nature as they are utilized as lazy plot devices designed to embolden the male characters rather than present a deeper truth about our nation's inhumanity towards women, especially women of color.

According to Dr. Alexander's article, no historical evidence exists that Turner's wife Cherry Ann was raped by slave patrollers not was her rape ever conceived of as being the catalyst that inspired Nat Turner's rebellion. Here is where I felt Nate Parker made his most crucial error as a storyteller (and especially so, considering his own personal history at Penn State). For if Dr. Alexander and some of the film's detractors are correct, I just do not understand how or why Parker felt the need to fabricate an outrage that already exists, an outrage that again was formulated through the bastardization of religion, a topic Parker would have been well served to have explored more explicitly and even more controversially. In many ways, as storytelling goes, rape is a cheap and easy way to achieve a sense of vengeance within the recipient of the story. I mean, Parker literally has Nat Turner racing to his wife's aid--on horseback, no less--in the middle of the night after he receives word of her rape and nearly all moments afterwards center around him while Cherry Ann is left to suffer silently, while waiting for her dignity to be avenged by the eventual rebellion. But, in some ways, the proceedings felt to be false, certainly not what Nate Parker intended for his audience to experience.

Look, dear readers, I don't wish for you to think that I am being unreasonable or too hard on the film. I just wish for you to understand the process of my analysis and the emotions I went through while viewing "The Birth Of A Nation." Remember, I was not taught even one thing about Nat Turner during any stage of my schooling, from elementary school through college. Even now, what I do is fairly scant, and I do realize that any lack of knowledge at this stage of life entirely lies with me. That being said, if one is to attempt to make a feature length film about the legacy of Nat Turner, especially during the age of Black Lives Matter, I strongly feel that it would behoove the artist in question to adhere to the facts as strictly as possible to ensure the truth is preserved.

Now don't get me wrong. Nate Parker's job is to create a movie, not teach a high school history class. There is nothing wrong with any sense of directorial or artistic license in order to keep your film entertaining as well as enlightening. Think of Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" (1992), what I feel to be his greatest film, a three hour opus that not only contained Denzel Washington's career best performance (or performances, as he clearly portrayed five shades of the same man), but an arsenal of Lee's signature cinematic idiosyncrasies, including a full blown dance sequence early within the film. And yes, by film's end, Lee and Washington has fully taken the audience upon the life journey of one individual, and therefore, gave me an insight I had not previously housed whatsoever.

Returning to Quentin Tarantino, his recent parade of historically based yet "through the looking glass" epics from the World War II, the Nazis and the Holocaust in "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) and the aforementioned "Django Unchained," all of the playing with factual evidence never seemed to deflect from the overall moral truths of either tragedy. Furthermore, what else are both Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" (2015) and even Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "The Revenant" (2015) but stylized explorations into the brutalities of violence and racism that sit at the core of the birth of our nation as we know it?  All of those films and filmmakers are masters at their respective crafts and are uniquely able to take our collective history and weave a variety of elements together to force us to think about where we came from, where we are and where we just may be headed.

Unfortunately Nate Parker just is not that skilled as of yet and with his film, he just provided too little of some elements and too many of other elements, which ultimately diluted his subject matter despite its intermittent power. I guess, when it all came down to it, I never really felt as if I was receiving a view through a certain window into the life of Nat Turner because Parker's approach seemed to be one of myth making rather than historically based. Parker did proclaim Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" (1995) as being an influence for him and to that end, "The Birth Of A Nation" really felt to me to be essentially Parker's version of Gibson's "The Passion Of The Christ" (2004) as Parker's interpretation of Nat Turner strangely functions as a variation of the Christ narrative, from inner conflicts, the attaining of disciples, the crucial Judas turncoat figure (apparently another fabricated element) as well as the capture and crucifixion.

It was just a depiction that I did not need to see because for me, that sort of a narrative veered away from the truth and all of the inherent drama contained within. I had no need to see Nat Turner depicted as a majestic, messianic martyr. I needed to see the man, a man trapped within a life he, and all of Black America, were not supposed to survive  and how he found the audacity of strength, power, resolve and hope for a better future to rise upwards, to inspire others to rise with him and to fight back for the fullness of our freedom. Think of Ava DuVernay's "Selma" (2014) and how she took the iconic figure of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as brought him back to Earth to show us the flawed human being ad the work it takes to bring forth a grass roots civil rights movement. Or how about Jonathan Demme's "Beloved" (1998), which depicted how the Reconstruction period was indeed the reconstruction of Black America, individually and collectively.

How I wish that I responded to Nate Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation" more positively than I did. But even moreso, how I wished that Parker remained more truthful to the horrors of our nation's past and how they sit at the pit of our current 21st century racial turbulence. Yes, Parker holds up a much needed mirror to ourselves but honestly, how can we even begin to completely understand our history if that very history has been tampered with just to create a cinematic dramatic effect?

"Based upon a true story" indeed.

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