Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Oct 08, 2016 1:44 pm 
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A somewhat dubious triumph begins a promising career

If I were African American, I would approach Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner's brief but powerful 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, with awe and reverence and with trepidation, willing it to be as important and powerful and richly constructed as Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. But apart from not being African American, I am approaching things backwards. I've already seen both movies, and Birth of a Nation doesn't measure up. It doesn't brutalize the viewer with McQueen's enthusiasm, but it also lacks his panache. (I sort of hate 12 Years a Slave, but that is partly because it is so impressive). And Birth of a Nation also, as stated by David Edelstein in his review for New York Magazine, on which I will rely heavily, is filled with clichés. I'm trusting Edelstein that it's a cliché that when a "house nigger" is turned into a "field nigger," the first thing he'll do is prick his fingers on the cotton. I trust Edelstein that Parker "has taken the outlines of his story from history, his symbolism from Griffith, and his rhetorical strategy from Mel Gibson, who’s thanked in the credits and whose Brave­heart has been cited by Parker as a favorite movie." The latter fact shocks me. Braveheart doesn't seem to me a prism through which to view even a violent and brief episode of American history.

But Nate Parker, who wrote, directed, and stars in Birth of a Nation (which as Edelstein puts it "takes on" D.W. Griffith's 1915 enormously influential racist propaganda film of the same name, which jump-started and revived the Ku Klux Klan), is very talented, as well as very ambitious. To take on in one's first feature an epic, but potentially dangerous, moment of black history, is ambitious indeed. I believe that McQueen too was out of his depth, partly through being English not American, but McQueen took on 12 Years a Slave only after one great success (Hunger) and one impressive failure (Shame). And instead of taking on the lead in those two, he had a great new star, Michael Fassbender, to play both leads, a lucky collaboration indeed. But Parker is excellent in every scene in the role of Nat Turner, supple, subtle, and appealing. It's true (Edelstein again) that this makes him seem a better actor than director. But there's always the possibility that he might do better as a director with less daunting material from another hand.

The thing that troubles me most in The Birth of a Nation is the stock villains, and it's even a little sad that Jackie Earle Haley is called upon to play Raymond Cobb, the evil runaway slave hunter who pursues Nat and his family for decades. Some cast members seem cheapened by their roles in this film. It still remains true that it's a film of grand ambition, but melodramas have grand ambitions too, which come to noting.

Birth of a Nation is not a miserable failure; it's not that simple. It's a more than middling effort with resonant moments, though some of the raves sseem to come from writers dazzled by a first impression and Sundance buzz. However much it may be a grand failure with embarrassing elements, it still continues to pave the way fur a continuing line of ambitious African American films about important moments in America's history of slavery, which needs to be continually in our faces and on our minds. Ava DuVernay's searing Netflix documentary update and synthesis of what we know that opened the New York Film Festival, The 13th, is another valuable chapter in this nation's necessary progression toward self-knowledge and change in the area of race.

Edelstein asserts that Parker's movie is "not a garish vigilante cartoon like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained" but rather " a religious epic, a battle between the use of Scripture that justifies enslavement for economic ends and Scripture that justifies violence to overcome it. Nat is not just a preacher but also a mystic. As in life, he is possessed by visions, and he launches his rebellion after a solar eclipse, which he perceives as a sign from God." That reads ringingly; it's a nice way of summing up the film. But rather than saying Nat's a mystic as well as a preacher it would be better to say he's not fully a preacher at all. He's called upon to be one supposedly to earn money for his master and former playmate, Samuel Turner (Armand Hammer) by coaching other landowners' slaves to be more obedient using the Bible. And he's a bit of a mystic because he has to improvise with no other knowledge and only limited reading of the Bible. Matybe Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is "a vigilante cartoon" but it starts out openly as one. And in Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie Tarantino delivers a white racist villain far more fascinating and complex, perversely appealing, than anyone Parker conjures up. This of course happens through brilliantly entertaining dialogue, which Birth of a Nation doesn't have and which enables Tarantino to have fun with a supremely depressing subject. But only Tarantino could do this.

It's being said that Parker's movie is losing its credibility because he was involved in a rape case (in which he was acquitted) when he was in college. The young man charged with him was convicted, and the victim later committed suicide. This should be no more relevant than the fact that the movie was the big hit at Sundance this January. Nate Parker still should have a promising future.

Birth of a Nation, 120 mins., debuted Jan. at Sundance; also Toronto, Vancouver, Rome, and London. US theatrical release began 7 Oct. 2016. Screened for this review at Regal Union Square, NYC on opening day.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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