Forget the fest buzz and awards from frosty Park City, the record-setting 17.5 million dollar deal that followed from Fox Searchlight, and Nate Parker's decade-and-a-half old rape allegation that has up until now overshadowed the press cycle for the actor-turned-director's first film. "Audience Favorite" is precarious territory to occupy, anyway, and rarely a marker of quality. What's more, I thought Hollywood was over deal-making braggadocio. And, lastly, the unfathomable gravitas of rape - specifically tied to doubts about remorse and the suicide of a young girl - is not something I feel equipped to discuss. Instead, let us talk about the least interesting element: the film itself.
Nate Parker's "important" dud borrows its deliberately provocative title from the controversial 1915 D.W. Griffith film. Once hailed as a landmark of American cinema, Griffith's film - in retrospect - is seen as stained with the blood, shame, and responsibility of yielding a resurgence of violent Ku Klux Klan activity in early 1900s America.* No doubt that Parker's title selection is an attempt to reclaim the title or at the very least provoke thought about how far we - as a nation - have come and yet - especially in light of contemporary police-on-black violence - we have yet to go. To that extent, the film succeeds. The title, and the film's existence in general, provokes thought. 1831 - the year of Nat Turner's slave rebellion (the subject of the film) - wasn't all that long ago. But people forget.
Maybe that is enough: to remind the viewer that even though we were not there, that this is a shared history. But make no mistake: the film's technical and narrative sophistication is on-par with a community theater production during which someone happened to turn on a camera. Nearly every line is uttered with an air of historical weight, drowning itself in a wash of unspecified, but assured, importance. It is only in its moments of extreme violence - depicted with a directness and literalism that in a dubious two-fold achievement employs no imagination in its staging and leaves nothing to the imagination - that the film rises to something more than Southern jibber-jabber. Its partially invented love story between Nat Turner and Cherry lends a confusing fiction to a story touting its own historical import. That the rape of Cherry (also possibly invented?) serves as an inciting incident to the rebellion suggests that maybe Parker has not fully reconciled his feelings about his own past, whether for better or worse. Finally, the orchestral score is frequently employed in great, hackneyed, overpowering swells to do the job(s) of the director and performers (sometimes both) who so often fall short - an unforgivable intellectual insult to the viewer. While it is clear that THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a movie with certain intentions, its effect is blandness.
I don't like to say that movies are bad (even when they are) - cribbing a turn of phrase from film critic F.X. Feeney, I much prefer to define them in terms of "miracles." And, in this case, a "bad miracle." It is tough as hell to get a film made. There are so many things that can go wrong at any turn. The respect I have for the filmmaking act and its puckish tendency to fall apart informs my perspective. That said, THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a bad miracle. In-between the boredom and incompetence that results from a first feature undertaken on too grand a scale, its bizarre, laughable scenes of Turner's prophetic "visions" simultaneously say nothing and everything - vacuous, context-independent shouts into the void. The most perplexing of them all is a bleeding ear of corn. Enough said.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon
* Incidentally, the film critic Ezra Goodman interviewed D.W. Griffith in his last days, while Griffith was living in a hotel, rarely sober, and accepting visitors only if they came bearing the gift of a young woman's company. The result is the first section of Goodman's book, an edited collection, The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood.