In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
As a critic it is not necessarily my job to cast personal judgments, only to offer an opinion on the film in question. So in the name of separating art from artist, my initial intention was to review The Birth of a Nation in a vacuum. After hearing horror stories of writer/director Nate Parker’s illicit history of sexual assault, it appeared that his film would need to fight an uphill battle to find an audience, even after its explosive debut at Sundance. It is never my desire to hurt the release of any film. Not even The Boondock Saints, which is inarguably terrible. But in the time since seeing the film, I’ve seen some things that have made me change my mind. But before we get into my ham-fisted attempt at social commentary, let’s take some time to talk about the film itself. The Birth of a Nation tells the true story of Nat Turner, the slave who lead a prominent revolt during America’s darkest time. Parker’s film stumble-starts through its first act, depicting the early days of Nat and his de facto family with whom he labors on a large plantation. His owners are a white family who appear to treat their human property relatively well (***RELATIVELY*** There is no such thing as “proper” treatment of slaves). We don’t see any abuse depicted, and the slaves are permitted to socialize, worship, and even marry on their own terms. Nat even has a sort of friendship with Sam, the youngest boy of the master family.
When it is discovered that Nat is learning how to read, his masters give him a Bible, coldly advising that the other books aren’t for his kind. Nat takes to the Good Book with enthusiasm, and grows into a charismatic preacher. When it appears that his regular masses inspire a reluctant complacency amongst the slave ranks, he is dispatched to other plantations to preach the good word, all the while suppressing potential revolt. It’s a thankless task, and it’s one that subjects Nat to an unimaginable psychological cruelty.
While Nat begins to question his own place within this twisted structure, Sam, now an adult, begins to turn toward a deeper evil. The combination of heavy boozing, and the desire to maintain the popular image of his family results in his outright dismissal of kindness toward his workers. This shift in the way that Nat and his family are treated sparks the seeds of revolt, and in the name of freedom and dignity, a violent revolution begins.
Once the first act establishes the players and introduces a charming romance for Nat, The Birth of a Nation hits its stride. Parker shows promise as a director, mixing artistic dream sequences with the harsh and violent realities of plantation life. He also knows how to get strong, emotive performances from his cast. What could have easily been a copy/paste job of imagery from Roots or 12 Years a Slave is instead indicative of a film that borrows from its forbears without leaning too heavily on their style. There is a bit of wonky editing and sloppy staging inherent in the work of many debut directors, but it’s small potatoes. Nate Parker is the real deal, and if he can escape his real life controversy, he clearly has a career ahead of him both in front of and behind the camera.
One of the most admirable things about The Birth of a Nation is it’s deep characterizations. It would be easy and acceptable to depict the slaves as noble and the masters as evil, but the script takes the hard route of creating real people out of its characters. Each are given enough room to breathe, to experience, and grow/decline as a result. For this reason, The Birth of a Nation avoids becoming too Hallmarky to have an effect.
Even title is a work of art in and of itself. As both a reclamation from the D.W. Griffith film of the same name, and a strong suggestion that our great country was built on the back of intense human suffering, it says more in five words than the contents of the entire film.
But now we come to my beef. While watching football with my pops this weekend (as a courtesy to him – I have a supreme distaste for football), an ad aired for the film. The ad intercut a few lines of dialogue from the movie with footage of Black Lives Matter protests. This makes sense on the surface, as Black Lives Matter and NFL football have become bedfellows through the kneeling protests of many players. It also makes sense for a movie, which creates a strong argument for the importance and power of legacy (Turner’s revolt was basically buried by history), to be tied to the relevant racial movement of the day. Yet, the way the ad was framed upset me deeply. It doesn’t suggest a thoughtful link between today’s racial injustices and those of America’s history, but it rather opportunistically exploits the Black Lives Matter movement to sell tickets.
The Black Lives Matter movement is an important one, seeking to highlight the injustices faced by people of color here in the supposedly post-racial America. The reason it has gained so much power is the simplicity of its message: people are people, regardless of color (seriously, stuff your All Lives Matter rhetoric in a can). BLM is perhaps the most powerful social movement to ever grab hold of all forms of American media, through sheer force of being peaceful, and right. Shame on the marketing campaign for The Birth of a Nation to exploit a noble cause for money. Shame shame shame.
Furthermore, this feels like a move to counter whatever financial losses may have occurred as a result of Nate Parker’s rape allegations. We live in a world where even a baseless accusation can ruin somebody, and the accusations leveled against Parker are anything but baseless. On the one hand, exploiting BLM to associate your film with a positive and powerful force is good business. It’s hard to find a grey area in a world where so much social discourse is reduced to simple “with us or against us” rhetoric, so it’s easy to see why this ad was created. On the other hand, Black Lives Matter isn’t about business. To me this feels like I’ve been given two choices: either support the film and be lumped in with the rape apologists, or avoid the film and be lumped in with racists. Instead of having a conversation, we’ve now double down on the either/or divide.
So yeah, I separate art from artist in every circumstance where I can stomach it. I’m too much of a Polanski fan not too. But when you exploit goodness to manipulate me into lining your pockets, I’ll kindly take my money elsewhere. It’s a shame too. I was ready to recommend this one.
The Birth of a Nation opens Philly in theaters today.