The Buzz: The Birth of A Nation Succumbs to the Weight of its Own Importance
On this week’s The Buzz, we tackle the highly anticipated and deeply controversial film by Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation. We examine how the film tackles issues of slavery and race and whether it is as pertinent to today’s conversation in the subject as much as the writer-director-actor wants it to be.
Then we will look at the new teaser trailer to the reboot of Power Rangers and how it is indicative of the worst of Hollywood reboots. Then on a lighter note, we look at the second horror film available to stream for those horror movie nights that are bound to happen this Halloween.
Film: The Birth of a Nation: I cannot say that I did not let the recent resurfacing of Nate Parker’s rape trial color my view of his new film The Birth of a Nation. It without a doubt did. But, films cannot be viewed as if you’re in a vacuum. The extra-textual elements of art in conjunction with its substance can elevate art. To deny letting me be influenced by everything that surrounds film color my understanding and reaction to a film is to not allow me connect this film about Nat Turner’s rebellion to the rage that is being felt by the Black Lives Matter Movement and the continuing history of systemic repression by our government. But, this will not be about the Nate Parker controversy. That is for an article to come soon.
For most people, the problem reconciling with Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation is its importance. When it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it came right in the middle of the OscarSoWhite controversy, a movement not based on awards but on the lack of equality of good roles in Hollywood for actors of color. Birth of Nation would win the two biggest prizes at the festival; The Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award. Fox Searchlight would then acquire the film’s distribution rights for a record breaking $17.5 million.
For many people, this film represents hope. It is about a great historical figure in the black community, that is largely untold in the history class. The Birth of a Nation, by the audaciousness of its title, usurping the title of a film that is so deeply rooted in racism that it gave rise to the second wave of the KKK, by the importance and necessity of its subject matter, is made to be exalted. But, it is okay to admit that importance does not always mean good.
The Birth of a Nation is a passion project for Parker, a film that he has been trying to make for almost ten years. But, as a first time director/writer and lead actor, the stench of vanity and self-importance radiates off the film. In telling the story of Nat Turner, he turns to Hollywood conventions to his detriment. He creates a film where Turner has to witness American atrocities rather than live it; the difference of which creates a false spirit of rebellion.
The film follows the rise of political consciousness of lifelong slave Nat Turner until his slave rebellion in 1831, in which he would go on to indiscriminately kill white slave owners before his group of insurgents was put down. The film has Turner be our audience surrogate to experience slavery when it does not need one. We as a group of people know the machinations of slavery and the way it has been portrayed on screen. But, to portray Turner’s arc as one of realization of the atrocities of slavery denounces how it slowly bubbled. Ferguson, Eric Garner and all those events did not suddenly create this palpable tension. They were just the boiling point. It is disingenuous to insinuate single moments of atrocities led to vengeance.
But, Turner as a messianic figure who believe he was delivering his people from evil is a subject that the filmmakers did not quit now how to handle. Interlaced between scenes are dream sequences that touts Turner’s divination from God. His religious awakening combines the western gospels with African images. He was used by his slave owner, Samuel Turner (played by a gamely evil Armie Hammer), to preach to other slaves in different plantations as an extra source of income. This true-to-life messianic motivation is underserved by Parker’s inability to decide how to chronicle the change in Turner from complacent slave to rebel rouser.
The result is a character that feels like every motivation is self-serving. It does not help that any non-Nat Turner slave character are indistinguishable. Like the mainstream Hollywood films that underserve African American actors, this film leaves them with the same old retrograde tropes. Women are made to serve the men of the narrative, both the ruling class and the slaves themselves. Gabrielle Union, who was highly touted for her performance leading to this film, utters no line. Instead, she is used as a prop, as an instigating incident that leads to the rebellion. The same is said for Nat Turner’s wife played by Aunjanue Ellis, who is also made a victim of sexual assault by a group of slave hunters. The results of which are focused entirely on the reaction of Turner rather than the victim itself. There is no reason to use these moments of heightened brutality to give this rebellion just cause. The real thing is enough justification.
If not for the importance that surrounds the conversation around this film, The Birth of a Nation would be appropriately considered as a solid first effort from an up-and-coming filmmaker. But, this is not how the filmmakers view their film and this is not how the narrative of the film has been created. Unfortunately, I cannot escape this feeling of how this cheap manipulation is playing itself as something important; like Cocoa-Cola pretending its diet version is healthy.
For many, this film still represents hope and change. It represents palpable anger that persists and art needs to reflect that. But, this is not the film that rises up to that challenge. Rather, I want to offer other films. On television, Atlanta, Insecure, Brown Sugar, and Luke Cage are all shows that has subverted ideas of what it means to be black in America. It subverts stereotypes, point out systemic issues of racism, and more importantly portray people as people. Movies like Loving and Moonlight that are yet to be released have been said to do the same thing. Documentaries like Ava Duvernay’s 13th is a radical documentary on the locking up of people of color in prison. These are films that deserve attention. There is no need to rest all hope on one film held back by mediocrity. There are other options than the same old slave narrative. That is progress.
Coming Soon: Why The Power Rangers Trailer Represent all that is Bad with the Current Reboot Culture: A few years ago, noted music video director, Joseph Kahn, released his short Power Rangers fan film Power/Rangers. It was a short 14-minute film that was dark, violent and gritty. It was terrible. Yet, because it was only 14-minutes long, the idea of a gritty Power Rangers seemed appealing. Yea, it is crazy that a bunch of teenagers were tasked to fight alien villains. That must really do damage to the psyche.
During this year’s NY Comic Con, we saw the release of the teaser for Power Rangers. This is the new film reboot of the franchise, essentially remaking the original Mighty Morphing Power Ranger series. The Power Rangers was the coolest thing to a kid from ages 4-8. Once you as a kid hits 8, then everything about the series is just silly. That is the beauty of it and the original Saban series. It is a silly romp.
So, here comes this trailer, which like the Joseph Kahn short film, decides to take a hard left and create a “gritty reboot” that everyone wants. Instead of the sunny Ocean Grove, everything is filmed in a dark hue. These Power Rangers are troubled youth; one is seen bullied. Another is under house arrest.
We have become wrapped up in a culture of nostalgia. Late night talk show hosts have revamped their outdated format on people’s love for nostalgia. So, here comes Power Rangers. Part of its appeal is that it is the coolest thing for anyone who has not started reading a chapter book and the other is this kitschy show that is best with a little bit of external influences on the mind. This teaser sucked all of it out and replaced it with every gritty cliché in the book. And honestly, it is exhausting. I’m tired of angst. I’m tired of superhero origins that amount to the same. I’m tired of things resurrecting. We do not need a gritty Power Rangers whether it is a 14-minute short film or one with Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks in supporting roles.
Rewind: The Host: For our second selection in our horror film streaming recommendation, I bring you to Korea and the films of Bong Joon-ho. While he jumps from genre to genre, he still has a signature auteurist touch. Take for example, his monster movie, done in the style of Gojira, Bong’s film is funny, touching and scary all at the same time. Talking about grittiness earlier, The Host knows how to have fun and gosh darn it, The Host is a lot of fun. This is the type of film that has the pretentious French magazine, Cahiers du cinema place it on its top ten film list of 2006 along with Quentin Tarantino placing it as one of his favorite films in the last 30 years. The Host is all-welcoming film for all the types of movie fans to love. Trust me, it’s been a favorite of mine to show on many a Halloween nights. The Host is now streaming on Netflix.