Friday, October 7, 2016

'The Birth of a Nation' review

Note: This is a re-publishing of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation opens in theaters nationwide today.

So where do I start?

For anybody writing about Nate Parker's The Birth of Nation, in theaters nationwide on October 7, this is the question that comes to mind. This was always going to be a controversial film destined to spark debate, but the story has taken a dark, disturbing turn in recent weeks that has complicated things even further. The 1999 rape case, where Parker and Jean Celestin (his co-writer) were accused of sexually assaulting a woman during their time at Penn State, has come to dominate the conversation surrounding the film, overshadowing all of the Oscar buzz and topical themes that sparked excitement at Sundance. The case was always known by some insiders, but when Fox Searchlight tried to get the jump on the media speculation by having Parker conduct interviews with major trades such as Variety and Deadline, things took a rough turn. Parker appeared cold and inconsiderate during the interviews, emphasizing the emotional impact that the case had on him and how he had changed since that dark time.

The interviews were tough to stomach- no apology, no sense of remorse, nothing more than an acknowledgement that he had made mistakes. Then came the bombshell that Parker's accuser had committed suicide, seemingly as a result of the case that had haunted her for years. The news was shocking and gut-wrenching, and then the questions started to come in. Could we even watch The Birth of a Nation at this point? Would Fox Searchlight bother with a comprehensive Oscar campaign? Does Parker deserve our money and our respect? Can we truly separate the art and the artist? These questions are not easy to answer. And I'm not going to try to do that here. If you don't feel comfortable watching Birth, I can't blame you for that. It's tough to argue for watching a film from an individual who not only was accused of a heinous crime, but also seems to not recognize any of the harm that he caused.

But truth be told, I've never been one to boycott or avoid a film based on the actions of the people behind it. I still see Woody Allen's new movie every year, I'm certainly going to be checking out Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, and I would be there for a new Roman Polanski movie. I've made a decision to separate the art from the artist, but if people don't feel comfortable with that, I understand. With all of this in mind, I sat down at the Elgin Theatre at TIFF to watch one of the most talked-about movies of the year. Would Parker be booed? How would the crowd react? Was the film over-hyped at Sundance? Did critics hold back on what they really thought? All of these questions swirled through my head as I attended one of the most buzzed-about events of the festival.

And ultimately, it was kind of a disappointment across the board. Parker was received warmly, the screening occurred without protests or problems (the real controversy occurred at the press conference the next day), and the film is just fairly mediocre at the end of the day. It's far from a trainwreck, but it surely isn't anywhere close to being a good film. Parker's debut is bruising and effective in a way, and there are plenty of moments that emerge as memorable (one scene involving force feeding is especially harrowing). Unfortunately, Parker has the distinct misfortune of following in the footsteps of filmmakers like Steve McQueen and Quentin Tarantino, who tackled the slavery issue in very different fashions with 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, respectively. Parker tries to combine the two radically different tones in a meaningful way, but the result is a brutal slog, one that delivers all of the build-up and none of the payoff. He's got talent, but The Birth of a Nation is riddled with problems.

Reclaiming the name of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film about the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner (Parker), who was behind one of the most famous slave rebellions in American history. From birth, Nat is told that he's a special young man. He's represented in the film as a sort of "chosen one" figure, the man destined to lead a rebellion. He's taught to read by his master at a young age, and as he gets older, he becomes a preacher for his master and former friend (Armie Hammer). But as he travels through the plantations of the south and witnesses the horror of slavery in various ways, Nat changes from a preacher to a revolutionary. He assembles an army and prepares to overthrow the system, intent on killing every person who stands in his way. And by orchestrating one of the most powerful rebellions in history, Turner etches his name into the history books.

Parker has a spectacular visual eye, but he is less adept at dealing with complex characters, tone, and pacing. You know, things that are kinda important. He's able to create a provocative, haunting, and sickening image, but he can't connect those various images into a cohesive whole. It's a problem that hangs over the entire film, and I think that audiences are going to have a really tough time engaging in Birth of a Nation on an emotional level, despite the passion involved with the subject matter. The only character that even comes close to registering on the emotional scale is Turner. Everybody else is just sorta there, and his relationship with the supporting crew is very loosely defined. There are plenty of secondary characters in The Birth of a Nation, but their individual stories and motivations are drowned out in the grand scheme of the story. Turner's love for his wife even struggles under the ambition of the movie, although there is one gruelingly terrific scene with her towards the end.

I think that there will be plenty of interesting discussions surrounding the use of violence in Birth of a Nation, and I don't know if there's a right or wrong way to feel about it. But ultimately, the simple fact of the matter is this- the scenes that detail the horrors of slavery have been done better in other films, and the scenes involving violent revenge and uprising have been done better in other films. That's a fact that I think is irrefutable. Parker is great at staging disturbing, gut-wrenching scenes depicting man's inhumanity to man, but he misses so much of the emotion. There's not a scene in Birth of a Nation that made me want to cry or weep- instead, they just make you want to throw up after a while. Now, nausea is an equally valid response to such chilling images, but I do feel like there's an emotional distance to this work on the whole that is disappointing. It's angry and passionate and infuriated, yet those emotions never translate to the audience.

This is an issue that stretches to the rebellion, which may be the most problematic aspect of the entire film. For one, what you've already heard is 100% right- the rebellion happens way too late in the game. The revolution occurs with around 20 minutes left in the film, and that doesn't give it nearly enough time to work in an effective manner. The first chunk of Birth of a Nation is stodgy and devoid of subtlety, but Parker keeps the audience engaged by the promise of a fulfilling and exciting rebellion. And that it just sorta happens? Yeah, you're not gonna get much satisfaction at all by the end of Birth of a Nation. Parker puts himself into a corner by starting the rebellion so late that by the time things actually get moving, the film has to wrap up at the same time. In the days since I saw this, I've been piecing together ways that I think Birth of a Nation could be improved, and I remain frustrated that Parker didn't make some of these realizations earlier.

If Birth of a Nation did away with 30 minutes of the setup, focused on the most potent story beats, and shifted the attention to the camaraderie between Turner and his fellow rebels earlier in the story, then we might have an entirely different story here. But in its current state, that is far, far from the case. Essentially, we get 90 minutes of okay setup before 30 minutes of a rebellion that feels dull and rushed. That's not exactly an appealing combination, even if there are some terrific moments spread throughout the film. Surprisingly, Parker's performance as Turner emerges as one of the better aspects of the first part of the movie. He has an instant likability and even though I'm fairly certain he'll never work again after this whole fiasco, he definitely has a movie star presence.

The Birth of a Nation can best be described as admirably flawed. Parker shoots for the skies with his debut feature, and he partially succeeds. He's an exceptional visual stylist, but frankly, I don't think he's much of a storyteller. He has so many interesting themes to deal with- the nature of violence, the power of uprising, the moral line between murderer and revolutionary- and he just chooses to ignore them. Even though it features its fair share of memorable moments, The Birth of a Nation is immensely frustrating and disappointing. People are going to want to see it to be a part of the conversation, but I think that most audience members will find a film with many elements that have been done better elsewhere.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.9/10)

Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

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