TIFF: Birth of a Nation

It is sometimes difficult to separate the message from the movie. I’ve already braved backlash by confessing that I didn’t care for 12 Years a Slave. This is not the same as saying I love slavery or I hate black people, but some people will choose to hear it that way. I can see with my own eyes that 12 Years A Slave does have artistic merit. Steve McQueen has a stylistic sensibility I can’t ignore, and Chiwetel Ejiofor gave a riveting performance amongst a strong cast. But the movie felt derivative to me. In a crowd of slavery movies, this one didn’t have a distinctive voice and I was bored. How does Birth of a Nation compare?

Well, it’s both better and worse. The first two-third to three-quarters of Nate Parker’s movie is a lot of the same old. We get it: slavery is bad. I actually don’t require 90 minutes of convincing on that subject. But the last chapter of the story is when it finally comes alive: the slaves rise up. birth-of-a-nation-nate-parkerNat Turner, a docile preacher, reaches his breaking point and leads a rebellion. A bloody rebellion. White slave owners will be slain in their beds. These scenes are so jarring that I can understand why one might think that 90 minutes worth of context are important. Those minutes establish that yes, slavery is bad. There were indeed lots of vicious slave owners who were just despicable human beings. But slavery movies often have a benevolent slave owner as well, one who is “not so bad,” I suppose so that white people don’t shout “They’re not all like that!”

As Samuel, Armie Hammer is this year’s Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s not too terrible. But his character’s arc is perhaps the most compelling of the film. As children, he and Nat are playmates. They aren’t equals, but maybe they’re friends. It is only as Samuel inherits the plantation and all of its chattel – which of course includes the human beings who work the land – that this relationship transforms. It is clear that Nat is not just his employee – there is a subservience to their interactions that is immediately repulsive. Times are tough in the south. Plantation owners are under a lot of pressure, and the slaves are of course the first ones to suffer, to work longer hours with less food. Samuel, being “one of the good ones” begins to drink, ostensibly to deal with the increasingly degrading things he must demand of his slaves. He slides from benevolent to aggressive, and it’s a great performance from the man you’re probably not watching as closely as you should. But that’s the problem with owning slaves. Once you accept that owning another human being is okay, of course it’s a slippery slope that leads directly to the rapes and whippings and deprivations we’re so used to seeing. There is no good way to own a slave.

As Samuel slides further down into the muck, Nat is rising from it, with increasingly radical ideas about his oppressors. So Nat Turner rises up. Samuel Turner gets cut down. Are we prepared toenter_slavery_2_la see this? Prepared to watch people be chopped up as they sleep in their homes? It’s brutal and shocking. And justified: the film has made sure of that. Of course this is a true story so you know there is no happy ending here. Nat Turner’s is a necessary voice in the story of slavery, and Nate Parker’s choice to make religion both a weapon, and salvation, are a fresh take on a crowded genre.

Nate Parker co-wrote and directed himself in The Birth of a Nation, and his passion is evident. I only wish he trusted his audience more. In the hands of a more competent director, we might have a Best Picture contender here, but instead he allows his slow build to be overplayed, turning his third act into a bit of a cocky circus act. It’s uneven. It neglects secondary characters – and with Aja Naomi King so damned good, it seems a crime not to give her more screen time.

Speaking of which. I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t bring up the skeletons in Nate Parker’s closet. The Birth of a Nation was a Big Deal at Sundance. Fox Searchlight eagerly bought it up and set an October release date, certain it would be on the path toward Oscar. But rape allegations in Parker’s past resurfaced. When he was a student at Penn State, he was accused and charged with sexually assaulting a woman along with his roommate and The Birth of a Nation co-writer, Jean Celestin. They stood trial; Parker was eventually acquitted but Celestin was found guilty before having the verdict overturned on appeal. The story gained traction when it was reported that the victim had committed suicide. Even with an acquittal to his name, an a newfound belief in god, Parker’s mea culpa press tour has been lacking. His remorse has been sparse. Gabrielle Union, the actress who plays a rape victim in The Birth of a Nation, herself a real-life survivor of sexual assault, has struggled to reconcile his past and her part in his present. Can we and should we separate the art from the artist? What kind of shadow does this cast over his film? As Union puts it, “As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly.”

The Birth of A Nation is an important story and deserves to be seen and heard. I said before that I thought it was both a better and a worse film than 12 Years A Slave. What I meant was: it’s not as good a movie. It’s more formulaic, more conventional, less sophisticated, a little too obvious. But as a piece of art, it inspires conversation and controversy. I can’t discount it.

 

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23 thoughts on “TIFF: Birth of a Nation

  1. Sean

    Great review. Having seen it I’m surprised it won at Sundance. Nat Turner’s story is compelling. The movie was enjoyable for me largely because of that underlying story as opposed to how it was realized. I did appreciate the approach to Armie Hammer’s character. As you said, you can’t be both a decent guy and a slave owner! But we didn’t need to spend an hour and a half to establish that. Pick up the pace!

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  2. Brittani

    This is the 2nd review I’ve read today where someone remarked that Parker doesn’t “trust his audience” the more I read, the more I think I’ll just wait for DVD for this one. Great review!

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  3. The Eclectic Scribe (@EclecticScribe5)

    Excellent review! Despite his acquittal, and the fact that — obviously — I don’t know the whole story, this story left me with a very bad feeling about Parker. His public comment that people didn’t understand the concept of consent in 1999 the same way they do now… WTF? I went to college in the 80s, and we certainly understood the concept of consent. This is one of the few issues for which, in my mind, there really are no shades of gray. 😦

    I found this very disheartening, especially since I admire him as an actor have been really excited about Birth of a Nation.

    I have difficulty separating the artist from his art, perhaps because art is so personal. But I’m not sure how I feel about that issue.

    It sounds like this movie suffered from pacing issues. As you said, it’s likely to have happened because Parker felt seeing people murdered in their beds required plenty of context. Part of me agrees with you: trust the viewer. Another part of me wonders how ignorant some people are about the history of slavery in this country. :-/

    Regardless, I haven’t seen it yet. Like Brittani, I’ll probably wait for the DVD.

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    1. Jay Post author

      Lots of good points here. I’ll be interested to find out what others are thinking about this movie. It was supposed to be Big but just doesn’t feel it to me.

      And yeah, I can’t know what really happened then but I don’t like the way he talks about it now. I do know that.

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  4. Jay Post author

    I did not see Burn Your Maps and I can’t remember what it’s about, but I love this kid – can’t believe I saw Jacob Tremblay for the first time last year at TIFF, in Room.

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  5. Jay Post author

    No joke: somebody handed Woody Harrelson a kid on the red carpet for LBJ Thursday night. Sean and I were in the audience – you won’t believe how funny it is!

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  6. Liz A.

    So much to think about here. Do you separate the artist from their art? Is it more important to laud a film that sheds light on important topics or is it more important to laud good films? Thorny subjects.

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  7. Birgit

    I have to agree with what everyone wrote here…excellent review! I had no idea what it was about and thought it was, somehow, a remake of the 1915 film and was wondering how and why? I didn’t know why there was a controversy until now and it’s so sad that this woman committed suicide and that this man hides behind his religion. On a lighter note, Rooney Mara really must never smile and her boobs will soon be hitting the floor is she never wears a bra.

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  8. Jay Post author

    Aja Naomi King: I was not familiar with the story of Nat Turner. It was a name I had heard once or twice, like, ‘Something happened, they tried and they failed.’ No real details. But then I read the script and started doing research and it was like, ‘Oh, wow, enslaved Africans tried to do that? Like, that was us?! We did that?!

    Colmon Domingo: I’ve been growing into this mustache and embracing it. It’s a conversation piece — people either like it or don’t like it, and it brings out feelings in them, whether it feels pervy in a way or it feels cartoonish… It holds a mirror up to a person.

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  9. Courtney Young

    Great, great review! It’s so interesting to get your perspective as someone who didn’t care for 12 Years a Slave as I did so deeply. I think my biggest complaint is that the film isn’t as strong as it could be/should be/what have you. As I got blasted for in my review, important topics do not equal good films. Unfortunately.

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