I was talking, late last week, to a friend who works at the Independent about the impending release on these shores of Nate Parker’s once-heralded The Birth of a Nation. As our general displeasure with the film continued to rise, our discussion reached one of the defining scenes. There’s a darkened, disheveled shed where slaves are hung up with chains, and force-fed through funnels. The owner, a drunken, slimy specimen, turns to a slave who refuses to eat. Forcing the mouth open, the owner chips away the slave’s teeth with ease and a thrill. Thinking back, I distinctly recall this moment sending chills through my spine, revolting me deeply. Yet my friend retorted, wisely, “No, I hated it. It typified it all. It was glorified violence to create a ‘memorable’ scene rather than aid the narrative.” That’s the problem. The Birth of a Nation is a bad film about an important topic, and you should avoid it.
Now before we go any further, our ethos here at One Room With A View is to never hate a film. Nobody ever sets out to make a bad film. There’s rarely any malice or evil intent when creating art – whether it be a blockbuster or a silent introspective number. This article is not here to crucify and mock the efforts of The Birth of a Nation. Yet there is valid and spacious room to critique its failings.
Out this Friday in the UK, the film is based on the true story of Nat Turner (played by Parker), who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. For those in the industry, the film has been on radars since January 2016, when all the pomp and circumstance a film could be afforded was showered upon it at the Sundance Film Festival. On its first showing, it received the longest and loudest standing ovation of the year. Tears were shed, hype was built. Variety were so confident in the strength of the feature, they wrote “it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Parker isn’t a strong contender for best actor.” Soon after, there was a Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Dramatic Feature in the bag. No mean feat. Then began the grandest bidding war for a feature in the festival’s history – with Amazon, Netflix, Sony Pictures, The Weinstein Company and Fox Searchlight going in for the period drama. In the end, a record was set: $17.5 million for the rights, and Searchlight had a surefire Oscar winner on their hands. Yet here it is: slumming it alongside Snowden in early December, and long since forgotten by our friends across the pond. You’ll be lucky to find it in your nearest multiplex. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
There are moments – even after having seen the film – where the film’s dramatic failings beggar belief. Purchased by the studio who delivered 12 Years a Slave, in the context of #OscarsSoWhite, and the rising Black Lives Matter movement, The Birth of a Nation – in a purely algorithmic sense – seemed a revolutionary home run. So what went wrong? To begin, it’s difficult, nay impossible, to separate art from artist – especially with Parker’s complete mishandling of the re-emergence of his 1999 rape accusations into public consciousness. But beyond that, it’s simple: The Birth of a Nation is not a great movie.
It’s not the worst film you’ll ever see, but the issue is that the passionate importance surrounding this subject deserves better. In truth, little can be added to the eloquent work of Vinson Cunningham in The New Yorker, where he unequivocally (and with some finality) strikes the feature down, stating it works neither as art or propaganda. While there are some merits to the film, the treatment of women (centrally, the invention of a rape scene to add ‘character’ to the lead male role), the over-the-top bombastic ending and lack of innovation hold it back. Now the immediate comparison for this film is to Steve McQueen’s far superior 12 Years a Slave. Outside of a simple Top Trumps comparison of McQueen vs. Parker in terms of filmmaking ability, the unflattering comparison comes from the message itself. 12 Years evokes the realism of slavery – from the daily torture of slaves to the everyday nature of hanging and lynching. There is no heroism. There are no saviours. It happened constantly. In return, Birth of a Nation is so ardent and determined in its mission to champion Nat Turner’s bravery, it forgoes realism to delve into pure Hollywood. The work of Gabrielle Union and Aja Naomi King can never attain the power Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsy had in 12 Years a Slave, because Parker’s film fails to address them. He’s too busy making Turner the hero. 12 Years a Slave is about humanity, its disgusting flaws and quiet strength. What does Birth of a Nation stand or aim for?
The wider canon of films on the topic of slavery is slim, but not non-existent. Amistad, Django Unchained, Glory, Lincoln (sort of), Beloved, The Color Purple, and Sankofa are all examples – albeit flawed ones – of what can be achieved in documenting the disease that infected America for nearly four centuries. It’s unlikely that Parker’s film will feature highly on this list in the years to come. It doesn’t deserve to. Yet here’s to all filmmakers taking up the baton to show us black stories with flair, strength and nuance – not just on slavery, but on every topic – because that would be the best legacy of this film: a case study that it’s possible while challenging newcomers to do better. See: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Ava DuVernay’s stunning 13TH, for starters.