Art is Culture; Culture is Art....


Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Robert Wetzel

It is a difficult time for artists these days, not to mention for those who seek to comment about art.  And make no mistake: film is – or at least can be – art.  And so as one approaches a film like Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’, there are many conflicting influences in our culture that shape both a critical evaluation of the film and the context of that evaluation.  Difficult?  Sure.  But in my mind it is a very good thing.  It’s about time we stepped out of our fanboy/girl oblivion and considered what is going on in the real world.  If seeing, considering and talking about a film can do that, I’m all for it.

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So what’s the issue?  Ahh, if it were only one issue, things might be simpler.  But ‘Birth of a Nation’ and its makers raise a number of them.  Let’s get them on the table and then talk about the film.  First, this is a powerful film about slavery, and particularly the real moment in time when a group of slaves rose up against their oppressors, empowered by rage and the Bible.  With race and religion a very current theme in our lives, it is a cogent starting point.  Second, this is a film in which women, particularly, are treated with contempt and aggression: they are raped, beaten and used.  By itself, this would be a significant issue.  But it is aggravated by the fact that filmmaker Parker – and his co-writer – were charged with the rape of a fellow student while in college; and that women ultimately committed suicide.  The treatment of women in the film could be perceived to be a matter of art imitating life – in a very bad way.  And then there is the issue of diversity in film and filmmaking, which has become a major issue in the industry over the past year.  ‘Birth of a Nation’ was the Great Black Hope when it premiered to overwhelmingly positive reviews at the Sundance Festival in January.  But in retrospect, much of that positive vibe seems to have been driven by the demands  -- or perhaps the needs --of our culture, not the quality of the film.

So let’s talk about the film, and then circle back to the cultural issues.  This is a film about a specific period and incident in time – a horrible, but real, period.  As a film about that period, it is a good work of historical filmmaking.  Nat Turner was born and raised a slave in Virginia in the early 19th century.  By turn of fate, he was taught to read by his well-meaning owners – but only allowed to read the Bible.  He became a skilled interpreter and preacher of the gospel, and was enlisted by his owner to use his skills to preach obedience to his fellow slaves and to quiet their growing rebelliousness.  But a series of events – largely driven in the film by violence against women – causes Turner to begin seeing more in the Bible than obedience.  Rather, he begins, quietly at first and then more openly, to preach rebellion.  This culminates in the slave rebellion of August, 1831, for which Turner was tried and hanged for his leadership role. 

The film itself is a strong narrative work, taking the audience through Turner’s development and conversion.  Along the way, we are presented with all of the stereotypes of the period: evil slave owners, brutal overseers, kind women, accepting slaves.  The acting performances are generally very good, if a bit overdone – particularly those of the slave owners.   As writer, director, producer and star, this is Parker’s film, and he dominates the screen and the action.  Armie Hammer, as Turner’s owner, however, is confusingly conflicted – perhaps attempting to portray a victim of his time and place, but more often just unable to find the core of his character.

Another irritation is that the camera tends to return too often to the landscape of lowland Virginia in a pastoral manner that is not consistent with the tone of the film.  Overall, the scenery romanticizes the time and place, which seems at odds with the theme of the movie.  And the music – a combination of symphonic overture and gospel – creates emotions than might not be expected in a film of this type.  Bottom line, when viewed simply as a movie, ‘Birth of a Nation’ is good, but not great.  Out of context, I would likely say that it is worth seeing, but not groundbreaking.

But this is not a film that can be considered ‘out of context’.  As noted above there is simply too much context.  And as such, it rises to the status of ‘must see’.  I struggle with that, actually, because it potentially rewards the filmmaker for bad behavior – not to mention somewhat pedestrian filmmaking.  However, the issues raised in the film and its creation are the issues of our time and important to the discussions that we should be having.  And we cannot have those discussions ‘out of context’.  Art influences culture and vice-versa.  Take a pass on the superhero drivel, and see films like ‘The Hunting Ground’, ‘Goat’ – and ‘Birth of a Nation’.  Then engage in the meaningful and necessary conversation that must follow. 

Finally, loyal readers will know that I have raved about ‘Coming Through the Rye’, James Sadwith’s poignant and humorous film about a young James Sadwith meeting with J.D. Salinger.  You have an opportunity to make sure that this film gets into theaters by supporting the film on Indiegogo.  Be a real movie mogul and help bring this wonderful film to wider audiences by going to: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/coming-through-the-rye-at-a-theater-near-you#/

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