When 12 Years a Slave cleaned up at the Academy Awards two years ago, a rash of films depicting America’s ugly history with slavery were bound to follow — not because Hollywood suddenly developed a conscience about these things, but simply because that’s what Hollywood does to fill seats in a theater. If one Super Hero movie is a blockbuster, Hollywood will continue to make super hero films until they aren’t a draw anymore.
This is no different with films attempting to cash in on a narrative of social upheaval, the Black Lives Matter movement, and perceived institutional racism pushed out by our media. This was seen last year with a well-intentioned film in Selma, which suffered from over-hyped production and performances, and a media culture desperate to see it score at the Oscars.
This year will be no different. Loving, a film depicting the true events of an interracial couple challenging interracial marriage laws in 1967 Virginia, hits theaters in November. Last week, we saw the release of the controversial (more on that later) Birth of a Nation, a film depicting the Nat Turner led slave rebellion, starring, written and directed by Nate Parker.
Parker has become a figure of controversy after it was revealed that he was accused, and later acquitted, of sexual assault during his college days at Penn State in 1999. The director has come to be viewed as very problematic by left-wing activists and social justice warriors, some of whom staged a candle light sit in on the night of the film’s premiere in Los Angeles.
One might expect that Birth of a Nation would be critic-proof on movie review sites across the web, similar to the way Lady Ghostbusters was, a film rejected by audiences, but embraced by film media simply because it was made a had a message. But Birth of a Nation has found itself at the pointy end of Social Justice spears.
“The Birth of a Nation’ isn’t even a good movie — not that you should see it anyways” Complex Pop Culture declared in a tweet. “Nate Parker and Jean Celestin pimped black suffering for financial gain…” The Nation proclaimed in it’s review. From The Wrap: “Birth of a Nation’ Looks Like a Bomb After Rape Case Fallout.” USA Today and Slate cite Parker’s history of women as a reason the film mishandles incidents of rape.
I wanted to personally see what the fuss was about; if The Birth of a Nation was really as tepid as critics who heap praise on every film intended to stir social change in society, or if it was in fact seemingly getting an unfair rap because of the personal history of the actor/director at the center of it.
At best, it’s stirring at times but uneven at others. Parker clearly has a feel for the broad concepts of silent cinematography. Sunsets gleam over morning cotton fields, dining rooms are filmed at dusk, lit only by candle light, but the film still manages to maintain an off-color Instagram cooling filter look about it. But overall the scope and feel almost seems best suited for a Lifetime movie of the week, and perhaps that has to do with production or budget.
Parker does well showing how Turner was moved to action by seeing slaves not as “well off” as he was treated, but ultimately when Turner finally turns the corner, there’s very little emotional resonance. When he finally confronts his master (Armie Hammer) — a man with whom, by all appearances, he fostered a cordial relationship with since childhood — it should be a powerful moment, and yet we’re still left wanting to see more emotion between the two as one lays dying.
Where the film excels narratively, is in how Turner uses biblical passages to advance its narrative. When Turner, a baptist preacher, is called upon to give a sermon to put an abusive farmer’s slaves back into line, one of the more gruesome moments of the film, Turner, with more knowledge and reading capability it would seem than the white masters overseeing the sermon with shotguns and whips, stirs the masses in code. The seeds of a revolt are planted.
The problem with the film ultimately lies with Parker turning Birth of a Nation into a film that is about himself instead of Turner. Parker is unable to give emotional weight to his character in the mold of, say, a Jamie Foxx or Chiwetel Ejiofor. Parker is an infinitely better director than actor, and that’s where he should focus.
In the end, there seems to be much ado about nothing over a decently crafted, well-intentioned but flawed picture. Once again social justice media has succeeded in elevating and destroying a film that ultimately wasn’t worth the hysteria surrounding it.
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