Friday, 9 September 2016

THE BIRTH OF A NATION - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - Biopic pillories Nat Turner

Nat Turner at the pillory,
though it's director/star Nate Parker
who deserves to be pilloried.
The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Dir. Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley,
Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union, Esther Scott

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Nate Parker shoehorns two rapes into his abysmal big-screen biopic of the legendary African American freedom fighter Nat Turner. That one of them involves the character of Turner's wife, who appears (by all historical accounts) to have never been raped, manages to offer up a mighty rank fish-smell wafting from Parker's fetid onscreen world.

That the other rape in the film involves a character who doesn't have a single line of dialogue, seems more than enough to charge the picture with bearing a strong streak of sexism, if not downright misogyny. Both rapes are indicative of a myriad of poor storytelling choices on Nate Parker's part in this horrid, poorly written and incompetently directed attempt to render a stirring picture about one of America's greatest heroes.

Nate Parker in diapers. Fetishize THAT!
The Birth of a Nation is so awful, it's disheartening that it exists as the first major feature drama to tell such an important story about the history of African-Americans. Nat Turner (played in the film by director Parker) led a major slave uprising in 1831 Virginia. The rebellion resulted in the deaths of about 60 white people who "benefitted" from being slavers. The aftermath saw many of Turner's followers captured and killed. Turner himself eventually suffered the same fate. In spite of a flurry of official measures by Whitey to place further restraints upon African-Americans, the rebellion is an important event which provided hope to slaves and contributed to the anti-slavery sentiments amongst America's liberal class.

Parker's film places considerable emphasis upon Turner's literacy and abilities to preach the words of God. That his financially-strapped owner (Armie Hammer) sells his slave's services to other plantation owners (who hope to quell sentiments of rebellion), is a story element that certainly offers the potential of a very interesting relationship - a kind of bro-mance miscegenation-style, but Parker is such an incompetent film storyteller, it remains firmly lodged up the smelly butthole of potentiality.

The film also spends inordinately saccharine amounts of time on Turner's relationship with his wife, rooted (so to speak) in the director's considerable exertions to bolster his delusional belief in the yummy sex appeal he seems to think he has. This is about as offensive as the aforementioned rapey stuff, but might actually be more bile-inducing.

And so, the movie plods along, rife with cliches and historical inaccuracies and directed with all the aplomb of a made-for-TV movie. Once the "action" begins, Parker's meagre directorial abilities extend to an inability to offer up coverage commensurate with the sort of flair that could have, at the very least, kept an audience awake and sufficiently charged to have something resembling an emotional response to the pallid proceedings.

"Who stole my diapers?"
Given that Parker has attempted to "reclaim" the film's title from D.W. Griffith's racist, but undeniably groundbreaking 1915 feature, he might have attempted to study the film's astonishing mise-en-scene for a few pointers on how to make a movie.

Aside from his film's overall failure to deliver any goods at all, The Birth of a Nation is plagued with two especially egregious elements. First of all, the entire dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments (the former preaching revenge, the latter extolling the virtues of turning the other cheek) is never adequately addressed within the context of character, theme and drama. Secondly, a running dream-motif exploring Turner's belief in his destiny as a "warrior" is handled with all the subtlety of a jackhammer.

Parker even blows these dream sequences in which he appears as Turner, adorned in what appear to be the swaddling attire of cloth diapers, inspiring a whack of unintentional guffaws amongst audiences desperate for something (ANYTHING!!!). But here's the rub (sans tug). By not even bothering to mine the fetishistic possibilities inherent in the film's star (himself, 'natch), dolled up in this sexy attire, Turner seems to add considerable insult to injury. Then again, given the "primitive" context of the dream sequences, it seems unlikely Nat Turner would have been clothed at all. Perhaps Parker decided he didn't quite have the "equipment" to let it all hang out.

On both counts, ultimately, a real filmmaker might have been needed.

Of course we must not ignore the film's rapey "qualities", which seem somewhat curious given that Parker, in real life, was acquitted of rape several years earlier and that his accuser eventually committed suicide. That said, I don't believe it's ever fair to condemn a film based upon anything its maker may or may not have done in his private life. The movie must live or die by its quality as art. It is here, however, that The Birth of a Nation dies a miserable death, simply and solely by virtue of the fact that it's a dreadful picture.

The Film Corner Rating: * (One-Star)

The Birth of a Nation is a Special Presentation at TIFF 2016. It will be released theatrically by Fox-Searchlight.