Saturday, October 15, 2016

On THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)

I paid to see this highly-publicized feature.  Actor, screenwriter and director Nate Parker made a good film.  THE BIRTH OF A NATION is not an excellent film, but a good one.  Some film critics have compared it in ways to Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  McQueen's film is steadier in its tone and writing.  More polished.  Nate Parker could have benefited from a co-writer on his screenplay.  Also, McQueen's film is more of a biopic.  Both films are based on the accounts of real-life black men who endured the horrors of slavery in America's racist past.  White people who proclaimed themselves to be Christians bought and mistreated black people as if they were beasts of burden. Such disgusting, inhumane treatment is seen in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Parker's film is not wholly a biopic.  He takes a real-life person and real-life historical incidents and gives us a Bible story that is relevant today, a story of wrath and love, revenge and forgiveness. He shows us white and black people using the Bible for light and dark purposes.  He delivers this parable, if you will, wrapped in a bloody story based on the life of a slave named Nat Turner. Turner was a religious slave in Virginia in the 1830s who led a slave uprising.
The slave uprising took the lives of 60 white men, women and children at night.  Retaliation claimed the lives of about 200 black people.  Turner's confession was documented.  It's not used in Parker's film.  However, the confession reportedly revealed Nat Turner to be an intellectual at a time when most black slaves were not allowed to learn how to read.  And he was somewhat of a religious zealot.  He's a preacher to fellow slaves in the movie.  As the story unfolds, he quotes the Bible to inspire the murderous revenge attack.  There was a very popular 1967 novel that won the Pulitzer Prize.  The novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER, was written by William Styron.  It's a first person narrative by Turner that focuses on his 1831 slave revolt.  Why wasn't this book adapted into a major Hollywood movie?  Probably for the same reason that best-selling 1964 novel, THE MAN by Irving Wallace, did not become a major motion picture.  That novel was about the first black man to become President of the United States.  Yes, 1964.  It wound up in ABC's 1972 made-for-TV movie line up.  The production featured a brilliant performance by James Earl Jones as the president.  Those were stories that had revolutionary black lead characters and black supporting characters.  That comes to a point about the early screenings this year of THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Those screenings caused hot buzz for the movie. The lack of diversity in branches of the film and TV business needed to be an issue for a long, long time.  The story of Nat Turner should have been on the big screen 20 years ago -- like both of the Pulitzer Prize winning plays about working class black Americans written by black playwright August Wilson.

Nate Parker's film was perfectly timed.  It hit festivals when "Oscars So White" was still an important hashtag, one that has its place in The Motion Picture Academy's movie to include more people of color into its branches.  It also came out during and has an aching relevance to our "Black Lives Matter" movement.
But Parker's film misses in some ways.  First of all, he needed a co-writer on the screenplay. That would have helped.  And, although a good actor, I would have tried to get something more out of him if I was the director.  We see Nat Turner as a young man who has been taught to read by a slave owner's wife.  He reads the Bible.  He reads quite well.  Penelope Ann Miller, in a fine and skilled performance, plays the wife who notices the young slave's interest in reading.  She doesn't punish him.  She tries to do the Christian thing.  Within limits.  He can't read just any book in master's house.  He can only read what's given to him. The Bible.  And when he read aloud in a church service while the wife and others are in the congregation, he gets polite applause.  The plantation wife is proud, but we know that the other people in the pews see Nat as little more than a trained animal. He will be sent to the fields.

With his love and fervor for the Bible, slave owners use him to keep their slaves in line.  His preaching will keep the uneducated black slaves docile.  Nat does this and is the right-hand man for his master while he witness the physical torture of his people.  From whipping to mutilation to rape.
Nate Parker has a movie star form and face. His eyes are expressive and he can access his emotion. 
He needed to show more steadily growing agitation and anger in the educated Turner.  It takes a while for the story to get going.  We needed to sense that this "good" slave preacher was a ticking time bomb getting closer to a major explosion every time he witnesses one of his people being abused.  And Nate the director spends a lot of time on the face of Nate the actor while missing opportunities to let other elements of the film add to the scene.  For instance, when he reads aloud in church, behind him is a painting of the very Anglo-looking smiling Jesus.  When Nat gets lethal revenge on a slave owner, there's an image of the holy cross in the background.  I would've changed that to a Christ on a crucifix wall display to contrast the slave murder of his master.

Parker used a musical trope that was right out of 1930s & 40s Hollywood movies.  In some of those old films it wasn't enough to just to show that the sad butler, maid or field hand was black....they had to score the minority's appearance with "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" as background music to give you a musical clue that the person was black.

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" swells up as we get a close-up of Nat Turner picking cotton.  And there was an odd line in a scene with a group of slaves in rebellion mode.  They're in a field. It's late afternoon.  Nat looks at the sky and asks "What time is it?"  Another male slave responds, "About 5:30. 5:35."

"5:35"?  They're all uneducated slaves in the woods in the early 1830s.  Not guys working at Starbucks.

One strong, important scene could have had more strength, but it would've required Parker to take the camera off his face.  You can tell he was influenced by directors Steven Spielberg and Mel "BRAVEHEART" Gibson.  A slave woman Nat Turner loves is beaten by white men.  The sight of her beaten face resembles photos of the late teenager Emmett Till, the victim of a racist murder in the 1950s.  His mutilation and murder became a national news story and the subject of two documentaries.  The sight of her face is the kind of viciousness towards the innocent that we needed to see.  Parker should have shared the spotlight in that scene.  In a way, that's symbolic of the director's work with black women in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. He keeps the attention on himself and doesn't elevate them with a well-written and directed role.  Here, he should've been inspired by actress/director Barbra Streisand.  She will be the star of a film like THE PRINCE OF TIDES and make herself look fabulous in close-ups.  She also shares the spotlight and, as a director, makes her fellow actors stand out.  She directed co-stars Nick Nolte, Kate Nelligan, Amy Irving and Lauren Bacall to Oscar nominations.

There are times when you feel like you seen some of this film already.  Like in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, there's the kind slave and the alcoholic master who's conflicted over acting with humanity or fulfilling his expectations as a slave owner and treating black people like animals.  Then there are smaller scenes that have big impact.  For instance, a portly male slave with only one arm is being sold for breeding purposes.
The most awaited scene -- the violent uprising -- is powerful, brutal, bloody.  It's black versus white with knives, sword, axes and guns.  I won't tell you how the movie actually ends but the final scene seemed to be a lead-in for GLORY, the 1989 historical drama that brought Denzel Washington his first Oscar.  Edward Zwick, the director of that film, is an executive producer of Parker's THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

Finally, it was hard to watch Nate Parker and not think of the controversy surrounding him and a 1999 college rape trial in which he was accused and acquitted.  The story of this 1999 rape trial surfaced when THE BIRTH OF A NATION was generating Oscar buzz and was on the verge of opening nationwide.  The filmmaker proclaims his innocence.  While being interviewed on CBS's 60 MINUTES and ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA, he was given opportunities to apologize and, perhaps, decrease the controversy.  He held to the acquittal and refused to apologize for anything. 

Parker learned that it's still a different America for him, apparently.  When CAFE SOCIETY came out this year, did any columnist or on-air reporter ask if Woody Allen ever apologized to Mia Farrow?

If I interviewed Parker, I would not ask him about that rape trial and his acquittal. I'm sure I wouldn't get anything new. He's given the same answers worded in different ways.  But a Twitter buddy forwarded me an article in which he said that he'd never play a gay character.  I'd ask about that.

In an Ebony Magazine interview in 2014, it was reported that Parker said he will never play a gay character in an effort to "preserve the black man" adding that Hollywood offers black men roles that consist of "men with questionable sexuality."  Does that mean actor Nate Parker would reject good biopic screenplays about Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin (the architect of Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington), poet Langston Hughes or novelist/activist James Baldwin?  Paker's statements were made when he was promoting his performance in the 2014 film, BEYOND THE LIGHTS.  At no time during the promotion of that well-received film did the news of the controversial 1999 rape trial involving Nate Parker surface.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Worth seeing for its historical content.  Here's a trailer.


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