In the days and weeks ahead you’ll probably be reading a great deal about Birth of a Nation. No, we haven’t travelled back in time to 1915 (that will have to wait until after President Trump’s inauguration) – this Birth of a Nation (opening at Landmark’s California Theatre on Friday, Oct. 7) is entirely unrelated, though it’s also likely to provoke controversy.
The film tells the highly fictionalized story of Nat Turner, the rebellious slave who led a brief, bloody revolt against Virginia farmers in 1831. It’s written and directed by Nate Parker, a filmmaker whose Polanski-esque transgressions have left him open to considerable criticism.
Parker (who also headlines as Turner) has taken substantial liberties with the historical record, no doubt to broaden the film’s appeal and avoid its relegation to the art-house circuit. Birth of a Nation is a dramatic film first and a history lesson second; an understandable artistic decision, as it will be a conversation starter and hopefully a conduit to some bigger truths.
The soap opera elements with which Parker leavens his film are palatable if inessential. Aja Naomi King offers a warm, believable performance as Cherry, the (fictional) love of Nat’s life whose rape at the hands of wicked farmer Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley, masterfully malevolent) sets alight the touch paper of revolution.
History suggests it was actually religious visions that compelled Turner to act, but never mind the details: this is undoubtedly the right film for 2016. Viewers will be unable to avoid drawing parallels between the victimization of Black men and women at the hands of 19th century slaveholders and their murder at the hands of 21st century police officers.
You can be sure that those on the political right will also note those parallels – and take all the wrong lessons from them. They will consider Birth of a Nation as little more than incitement; a call to arms which their fevered imaginations will spin into the sort of ‘race war’ narratives expounded by neo-fascist websites. The fact that the film’s title is intended as an indictment of Griffith’s racist masterpiece will be the final icing on their outrage machine cake.
Fine performances compensate for the film’s occasionally clunky and anachronistic dialogue (did people actually say ‘will do’ in the 1830s?). Armie Hammer – the great-grandson of 20th century oligarch and fervent anti-communist Armand Hammer! – is particularly notable as ‘liberal’ slave-owner Sam Turner, while Berkeley’s own Roger Guenver Smith is memorable as Sam’s obsequiously cautious butler, Isaiah.
In sum, there is something for everyone in Birth of a Nation: catharsis, liberal guilt, conservative anger, and (for the strictly apolitical) action and romance. However, I mustn’t let the film’s one major sin go unmentioned – composer Henry Jackman’s score is utterly inappropriate, its faux-Hans Zimmerisms pulling the viewer out of the experience every time the music swells. It’s a most unfortunate and substantial misstep in what is otherwise a very well made feature – and one I predict will be amply acknowledged on Oscar night.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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