Art is Culture; Culture is Art....
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.
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
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#/