Thursday, 13 April 2017

On DVD: "The Birth of a Nation"

Rarely can a film's stock have fallen quite so sharply in the course of a single calendar year. The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker's thumping biopic of the rebellious slave Nat Turner, left audiences and critics reeling at its Sundance premiere last January, and sent Fox rummaging for a record sum to acquire global distribution rights, convinced they had the next 12 Years a Slave on their hands. If ever you needed more reason to distrust the glowing reviews and reactions routinely bounced back from the festival circuit, this would be it. First, there came the critical backlash, as sober, better-slept observers spotted the crudeness of the film's technique; there then emerged details of a troubling case from 1999 in which Parker and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, at that time college sophomores, were accused of (and, in the latter's case, convicted of) sexual assault. Celestin's conviction was overturned in 2005, only for the new trial convened to rehear the charges to be cancelled due to the absence of witnesses; his accuser would commit suicide in 2012, a tragedy too great for anything so flimsy as a mere movie to bear. A century on from the contentious D.W. Griffith epic from which Parker has co-opted his title, it's almost as though the practitioners of cinema haven't got anywhere or learnt anything - although I suppose you could say the rest of us are getting much more efficient about applying the hashtag #problematic.

The film itself, for what it's worth, turns out to be a markedly different beast from 12 Years, which was ultimately the work of an outsider-artist alert to the gruelling rituals of slavery and the power structures that sustained it. An actor-turned-director, Parker has grown up within the business, and his film is couched very much along the lines of conventional Hollywood biopic fare, existing somewhere between Hallmark Channel history lesson and Mel Gibson's Braveheart, a comparison Parker has happily received. In short, Birth was clearly made to be sold for a high price (where the McQueen film, stars aside, was in theory a tough sell), and we should probably note in passing the irony of Parker citing the deeply problematic Gibson as an influence. That influence is most strongly seen and felt in Parker's liberal application of blood. The first time the young Turner (Nat Espinosa) is taken out into the cotton fields, he pricks his finger; corncobs ooze crimson in a dream. Slavery here equals perversion of nature. Parker's older Turner is, much like that cotton, notable for his absorbency: the film is structured as a series of vile abuses its hero must soak up before his rage spills over in the head-smashing, throat-slitting finale. These include: witnessing the beating of a puppy; seeing one slave owner chiselling out the teeth of servants who've gone on hunger strike; seeing his own owner (Armie Hammer) selling his services to a less scrupulous honky; and, finally, a gang rape that ensures everyone in the auditorium is hollering for payback.

This gives Birth undeniable punch and momentum, but equally leaves it feeling predetermined where 12 Years felt genuinely shocking, prone to montages that ease us past the humiliating rituals and repetitions of the McQueen movie. Everything feels very carefully controlled and packaged: the framing of the hero's swelling anger as righteous (justified three times over, by first a Biblical quote, then a Godly solar eclipse, and finally his good lady wife's approval), the elaborately choreographed wedding party song-and-dance by which a ragtag bunch of field workers are momentarily transformed into the cast of Hamilton, the romance that develops between Nat and the new girl (Aja Naomi King), with her unerring knack of sitting exactly where the most brilliant rays of the Sun hit the Earth. (On the couple's wedding night, their bodies are positioned in such a way as to rhyme symmetrically with a pair of candles leaning into one another on the windowsill, an especially chintzy touch.) Where McQueen evoked slavery in scenes that were angry, ragged or sad, Parker seems to sense his position within the system all too well: his film has many of the trappings of those A-pictures that seek to tell Important Stories and thereby win awards, but it gets there via the methods of those B-movies that grab our attention with dollops of gore, setting us to endure and then cheer sights we would surely run or look away from in the real world.

Birth has just enough social-historical heft to cover its ass against charges of exploitation - charges that damned such films as Mandingo and Drum on their first release: it does look like an expensive (therefore respectable) studio release, making Fox's financial investment seem like a no-brainer at the time. Yet within that framework, Parker insistently selects the most obvious tactic with which to drive his points home: casting rent-a-hick Jackie Earle Haley and the ever-dissolute Mark Boone Jr. as landed locals, having Turner attacked by a white dog, putting the slo-mo on the lash such that it extends the agonies for an extra second or two, or simply just organising all the characters in such a way that they're entirely subservient to Turner - and thus the actors to Parker, the first-time multihyphenate striving to make an impression within a ruthlessly competitive (and - Moonlight schmoonlight - minority-blind) industry. The result can't help but have some impact - as Griffith's film, "history written with lightning" etc., did way back when - and particularly so among viewers desperate to see a greater number of black stories up on screen. Yet there are surely more artful and sensitive ways of telling these stories: even as Hacksaw Ridge muscles its director and prime mover back onto the fringes of awards consideration - and Hollywood redemption - we might ponder the wisdom of Parker adopting "Mad" Mel Gibson as a career role model.

The Birth of a Nation is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through 20th Century Fox from Monday.

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