Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

22 October 2016

The Misfiring of the New Birth of a Nation

After Sundance this year, everyone was talking about The Birth of a Nation. Sundance happens during Oscar season, and after the Oscar nominations were announced on January 14th and a number of films by black filmmakers were snubbed or otherwise ignored, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began to cause the Academy a lot of trouble. The Internet – and especially the Twitterverse – is a fickle, disloyal mob that tends to respond too quickly to things and jump to judgments that it should (it seems to me) consider for more than a couple of seconds or 140 characters. In this case the Internet caused the Academy to make real changes in membership structure, and the culture of the Internet became momentarily excited about black filmmaking.

This momentary excitement about black cinema was not enough, apparently, for audiences to make hits out of films like Mediterraneo, Dope, Chi-Raq, Timbuktu, Concussion, or Girlhood, but only enough to complain that the Academy didn't like them. Enter Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance and was greeted by ovations. The film was sold for a whopping $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, the most money ever paid for a film at Sundance. Everyone else got a taste when the film's teaser-trailer was released to the general public in April, and Birth seemed poised to be this year's answer to the Oscars So White problem. People said Nate Parker was a new director watch, the film seemed ready to win many Oscars, and this was to be a hit in the making. Parker is a fantastically sensitive actor, who gave what should've been a star-making performance in Arbitrage a couple of years ago.

But the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away. This August when the Birth of a Nation crew should have been promoting their film, the movie became beleaguered by accusations that Parker committed rape in 1999 (he was acquitted in 2001). And suddenly, inexplicably, even, Fox Searchlight and Parker had a real advertising crisis on their hands. Now: none of us knows whether or not Parker committed rape in 1999, so let's not pretend that any of us does, but the Internet mob, which had wanted us all to see and love The Birth of a Nation because it was good black cinema in a market that supposedly had no good black cinema had quickly tried and convicted this filmmaker of rape and wanted us all to boycott Birth.

The film, as it turned out, was a flop at the box-office, recouping only $7 million in its first weekend. It played for two weeks in theatres and now has disappeared. No one went.

I went. And I went expecting it to be a very good film that had been unfairly maligned by the hostile unthinking trolls of the Twitterverse. Well, it was unfairly maligned by the unthinking trolls of the Twitterverse, but it wasn't a good film. And what I think I discovered is that it was, in fact, unfairly, unthinkingly praised by audiences at Sundance. What were they all thinking back there in January?

Far from being an intriguing film about U.S. American history, The Birth of a Nation is a generic film about American slavery that hits all the exact same notes you know it will hit. There is absolutely nothing new here. There is no clever way of looking at things, no novel story, no unique filmmaking style, no newly uncovered historical information, no deeper portrait of American slavery than anything we've seen before. I am not saying we are done with stories about American slavery; I don't think we are. Its legacy is too powerful, and it is important that we keep remembering what this country did and how people managed to survive under American tyranny. But this is a genre film that ticks off the same boxes that any other film about American slavery has done... and with nothing new to make this one stand out.

Mr. Parker
It gets worse. The editing is excruciatingly awkward, and the storytelling moves in stilted ways from plot-point to plot-point without giving us a deep portrait either of Nat Turner, his wife, or the man who legally owned him according to American law. The acting is good all around (except for Roger Guenveur Smith, who I guess I just don't understand), and Parker gives another powerhouse performance. He is a great actor and is always compelling to watch, but this movie doesn't seem to think Nat Turner is either more or less interesting than any other American slave. Maybe I am jaded; any theatre historian who has read a lot of black theatre has read a great many escaped-slave narratives. (Eleanor Traylor argued as early as 1978 that the escape narrative was one of the fundamental black American contributions to American drama.) But The Birth of a Nation is only one more entry into the genre; it hasn't anything new to say. String together a set of sequences from any number of films about American slavery and you could edit your own version of this story.

And then there are the true absurdities in the film. Birth of a Nation seems to think all enslaved Africans in the U.S. came from the same place on the West African coast – that a group of enslaved black folks on a random plantation in Suffolk County, Virginia would all be able to understand the same language and have the same rituals. (The one time, incidentally, we see a faux-African ritual in the movie, it appears to be a ceremony that has no purpose whatsoever, since it is easily interrupted, and the man in charge quickly switches his focus.) And later when Turner's wife is brutally raped and beaten by a group of evil white men (the same evil white men who do all of the bad things in the movie; you'd think there were only three or four truly evil white men in the U.S.) she appears to be recovering in bed for many, many weeks. And at one point she speaks to Turner as though she is on her deathbed, crying and cringing, while Turner decides to put a group of men together to fight. But Mrs. Turner has contracted a movie illness and that is all. Her sickness makes no sense in the world: she has been injured; she isn't ill, it's just that usually in these kinds of movies a very sick woman tells a man that he should go fight and that she'll always be with him, and in the generic version of this narrative, a man needs a sick woman or a child to defend so that he can prove himself. It is probably worth noting, as well, that Parker uses the same trope of the violated female body that Griffith used in his original 1915 Birth of a Nation to justify the violence committed by Turner. In this 2016 Birth, the violated bodies of men and the systematic dehumanization and maltreatment of enslaved people in the South are apparently not enough for Turner to decide upon revolution, but defending the virtue of "our" women turns out to be an excellent justification for violence.

A vision of a better film
Where the film really falls down is a great missed opportunity – one that was promised by the film's trailer. The real Nat Turner saw visions and these were visions related to his faith in Christianity. So when, in the trailer, we saw images of Parker covered in white, it seemed that the film was going to have a kind of strange, visionary aesthetic that surprised us by rethinking not only how Christianity was understood by some enslaved Africans but giving us images that were uncannily surprising and beautiful. Interpretations of Christianity differ widely, of course, and the real Nat Turner heard crazy sounds and he claimed to have heard the voice of the god speaking to him in a kind of King Jams Version English – saying things like the Serpent hath been loosed among ye. I thought we were going to spend some cinematic time inside of these visions, but alas there was no voice of a god in this film, and there were no serpents. This Nat Turner's cosmology is as boring as our own. The Birth of a Nation's biggest missed opportunity is the way that it flattens Turner's own legacy, forming it into an uninspired rehash of a slave narrative we've heard before instead of attempting the real story of Turner's own outlandishness. (For the record, the great play Insurrection: Holding History by Robert O'Hara tries to do precisely what Parker does not do.)

Mr. Domingo gives the film's best performance
The Birth of a Nation isn't totally without merit; it boasts some excellent performances, including Parker's own. It is also always good to see Dwight Henry, who was so great as the father in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Colman Domingo who gives my favorite of the film's performances and is really superb. Armie Hammer and Jackie Earl Haley are also very good in their roles. None of this, however, is enough to make this film interesting. It's just boring moviemaking.

So what were they thinking at Sundance? I am wagering that the reasons everyone liked the film in January were similar to the reasons everyone hated this film in August – which is to say that they had nothing to do with the film itself. In January the Internet's politics aligned to make Birth of a Nation the film to see. By August the Internet's politics had realigned to make Birth of a Nation a flop. None of this was about the movie itself. When Internet hype creates a movie – Ghostbusters, Suicide Squad – the audiences simply don't appear in the way predictors think they will. The Twitterverse, it seems, is not the same thing as the real world. Do Twitter-users actually go to the movies? I have yet to see Twitter make or break a movie, but The Birth of a Nation is the third flop this summer that the Internet predicted would be a hit.

The Twitterverse speaks in too few characters to do real film criticism, that's for sure, but we have seen this summer that it isn't even good at spotting trends or predicting what people are actually going to go out and see. The Birth of a Nation was never a good movie, and Twitter was like an over-excited parent, building up the ego of its only moderately talented child just to watch him choke the first time he performed.