“The Birth of a Nation” – the battle between Important and Good

birth-of-a-nation-posterNutshell: A very important story, beautifully – and horrifically – told. Nate Parker may seem a bit too happy to throw on the messianic robes of Nat Turner, and his storytelling often goes overboard with heavy-handed symbolism. Yet, even with all the negative press on Parker, it’s an important story that has finally gotten its day. Grade: B

“Where is he, Nat?  Where’s God now?”

Story: A man born in slavery rises up to become a preacher.  But his faith in gods is at odds with the senseless, cruel actions of slave owners.  What else can a man do when he hears the call to right these wrongs by any means necessary?

Genre I’d put it in: Heartbreaking Truth Telling Not Everyone May Be Able To Watch

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Orignal: Based on Nat Turner’s Rebellion in August, 1831.

Gotta say: There’s a difference, sometimes, between Important, and Good. Sometimes we round one up for the sake of the other. Here, without a doubt, is a story that is Important. One that should be told, discussed, and remembered.

But Nate Parker’s telling of it isn’t Important. It’s beautiful, horrifying, and pulls all the right strings at all the right times. But it never fully gels; instead of a cohesive whole, it’s a showpiece of important scene after important scene. There’s even a bit of joy here and there, and touches of humor.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s an important story, and quite possibly an important film.  It just doesn’t live up to the Sundance hype, though I’m not sure anything could.

As Nat Turner, Parker is charismatic.  Turner is a man who can’t look away once he’s seen the ugliness in the world around him.  How can his master expect him to spread the word, but not hear it?  Parker’s performance captures the ache, the horror, and the agony of knowing that there’s nothing else he can do but rise up.  A man who gives his life in the hope that others will be free?  Yeah, it’s powerful stuff, made all the more powerful because his rebellion was so brief, and thanks to the rule of his day, only led to more suffering.

However, Birth feels less like Nat Turner’s story, and more like Nate Parker getting his martyr on. Think of this film as cinematic Yeezy; yeah, it’s art, and it’s damn good in bits and pieces. But the whole of it, combined with the performer we know, ends up feeling like a self-congratulatory trip into the high ego of the man in question. Like Kanye with his albums, here in Birth, Parker never misses an opportunity to play messiah. Did Nat Turner feel that he was a divine prophet put on earth to lead the charge to freedom? Signs point to yes. Yet Parker’s heavy hand with symbolism drives that point home so hard, it’s often tough to take this film’s symbolism seriously. A scene where Turner has his arms outstretched, with the halo-like sun behind him, is so obviously grabbing viewer’s heartstrings, I winced at the image.

As for the rest of the cast, there’s quality performances throughout.  In particular, Gabrielle Union and Aja Naomi King, as Ester and Cherry, give amazing performances that pulled me into the narrative and wouldn’t let me look away.  Do did Penelope Ann Miller and Armie Hammer, who played Elizabeth and Samuel Turner, slave owners who were as liberal as you could get…until the chips came down.  And as “house servant” Isaiah, Roger Guenveur Smith balances pride with trying to stay alive and safe.  It’s a supporting role, but an interesting balance to the farm hands who lead the charge.

Now, about that rape scene. Or more specifically, those rape scenes.  There are two, and they’re heartbreaking, raw and vicious.  But with all the hullabaloo about the intensity of these scenes, I can’t help but wonder if they’d been edited before the screening I attended.  Because in both instances, there’s the Before, and the horrible After…but no during.  I was thankful; it’s enough to witness the aftermath of vicious abuse.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if some editing got done after the Parker rape scandal splashed all over the news.

Not to worry though; there’s plenty of violence that will make you sick to your stomach.  A dead man on the side of the road, with his head bashed in.  A man that gets whipped within an inch of his life.  A hunger striker that gets teeth chipped out, so a feeding funnel can be fitted.  And of course the deaths on both sides during the Rebellion.  It’s gory, and it’s necessary.  Seeing exactly what happened to people acted out in full color grabs you in the gut, and it helps open dialogue about evil, and humanity.

While the FX are top notch, I wish the cinematography had been a bit more…epic.  A film about Nat Turner, with such beautiful images, begs for sweeping, glorious, crystal-clear color.  But wide shots are only so wide, and clear enough to see what’s happening, but not up to the painful beauty this story calls for.  The same can be said of the score, which is beautiful – who doesn’t sigh in appreciation whenever they hear Nina Simone? – but a bit too generically epic (and oftentimes so sweepingly beautiful it takes away from the story and becomes just so much more self-aggrandizement on the part of Parker.)

Should you see it?  Well, what’s your pain tolerance?  Because you’re in for an epic ride of emotions, and most of those will be painful. Birth is a beautiful film that slaps you in the face with the truth of life as a slave, and doesn’t let you feel comfortable about it for a moment.  That in and of itself is worthy of praise.  But that doesn’t mean you should subject yourself to pain you can’t bear, only because it’s Important pain.  Your heart and mind, your call.  I can say I was sniffly and heartsore for hours after the film.

As far as trying to make a judgement call about supporting a film made by a man who most likely committed rape when he was in college (go argue amongst yourselves about “what we know now about rape vs. what we knew then”)?  That’s on you and your god.  As for me, I didn’t pay for my screening, so I’m not one to judge if you do.  We can have a talk about Art vs. Ethics anytime you’d like to dig in.  I’ll be at the bar.

#Protip: Want to read what happened in Nat Turner’s own words (well, as told to white southerner Thomas Gray) in November, 1831?  Well, it’s public domain, so you can.

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