Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker)

Troubling Birth

Nate Parker's best most audacious most brilliant stroke is to take the name of D.W. Griffith's unabashedly racist yet nevertheless great epic The Birth of a Nation and deliberately slap it on his own debut feature, an attempted biopic of controversial preacher and revolutionary leader Nat Turner. More, he does this in 2016, a hundred years plus one since the release of Griffith's film.

Beyond that things get considerably murkier. Parker depicts many of the atrocities committed during slavery with the same unflinching eye Steve McQueen applied in 12 Years a Slave, adding a few fresh details (the act of force-feeding a slave on hunger strike for example, involving a hammer and chisel). Parker takes what little we know about the man and fashions a powerfully streamlined dramatic juggernaut, ending in a do-or-die kamikaze charge that reflects much of the film's form and spirit. 

That's the film; what the historical record tells us is somewhat different. The women were more than mere victims whose abuse precipitates the revolt (Turner's wife was possibly raped but this far as we know wasn't the immediate cause); they were actively involved, and helped in a number of ways. The violence was considerably more gruesome than what was shown, involving the killing of children and the decapitation of an infant (Parker does show a head being taken onscreen but an evil slaveholder's, which apparently is perfectly all right)

Oddly enough Turner himself reportedly shied from violence, having attempted and failed to kill several times; he confessed to being responsible for only one death, a Margaret Whitehead. Omission of this detail in the film adds to Turner's heroism but (an important 'but') takes away from the rounder more complex portrait. 

Turner's army was more guerrilla than conventional, a band of seventy escaped slaves and free blacks; unlike in the film they never assault the armory at Jerusalem, Virginia because they never reach Jerusalem (the uprising was suppressed in two days). Then there's the motive and meaning of the rebellion: the real Nat Turner started his revolt out of a long-gestating belief that slavery was wrong, and had (or so he claimed) the visions and divine messages from God to prove it. 

Parker does give us a brief suggestion of what Turner might have seen (a young angel, an ear of corn weeping red); the real Turner described a 'race war,' of seeing the blood of Christ 'returning to Earth again in the form of dew,' and of God choosing him to lead the coming revolt. Could Parker have elaborated more on those visions? Not without making Turner look crazy--but faith will always be a knotty issue whenever the time period, whatever the circumstances. Remember that the Holy Bible speaks of liberation (of the Israelites from the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans); remember also that terrorists from ISIS to white supremacists often turn to their respective holy scriptures for moral justification, and you can understand why Parker was so reluctant to dwell on the religious nature of Turner's motives. That said, resorting to classic revenge narrative ('they raped my woman now they gonna pay') seems like an unimaginative perhaps even uncourageous way of resolving the issue...not to mention reducing the women involved to the status of mere property, to be protected or avenged as the men see fit.  

Not a little disturbing that William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner hews closer to the historical record than Parker's film save in one detail: Styron transforms Whitehead (the one officially recorded victim) into Turner's object of forbidden desire, his true unspoken love. Poetic license I suppose but one result of said license was to distract readers from whatever virtues Styron's book had to raise in its stead the issue of sexual stereotyping (the black man as libidinous rapacious predator, lusting after virginal Southern belles).

The film's style is problematic at best, a pulpy mix of mostly slow motion and handheld footage, with at least one moment of outright visual idiocy: Turner and his fellow former slaves (armed mostly with knives axes and clubs) charging a larger group of slaveholders (armed mostly with pistols and rifles) and winning (only in the movies!). I have issues with McQueen's film but mainly with John Ridley's script and some of the cast's cartoonish acting (I'm look at you Mr. Fassbender); McQueen's sidling, sidelong camera movements actually do well to give his film's horrors an offcenter unsettlingly elegant art-film sheen, and you wish Parker had adopted some of that subtlety. 

Is it possible to give Turner's story the treatment it deserves, granted the scarcity of material, the many different interpretations? I think so. Charles Burnett's Nat Turner: a Troublesome Property not only gives us a sense of the various versions from various authors (Styron, Stowe, Gray) but allows us the freedom to judge each for ourselves; provides the perspectives of various historians; and--most startling of all--admits to the possibility of his own documentary affecting the whole process, tainting our conclusions with his own biases. 

Burnett's documentary is everything Parker's film is not: calmly and thoughtfully argued, inclusive rather than selective not just of facts but fictions, and amazingly modest about its capabilities (Parker on the other hand not only casts himself as Turner but lights and frames his face and figure heroically in almost every shot). Among Birth's several sins I'd say we must add the sin of redundancy--yes the story of Nat Turner's life has been properly told; we only have to rent the DVD off the PBS website

First published in Businessworld, 3.2.17

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