2016 keeps rolling along, despite our best efforts! Here's three more for the pyre: The Birth of a Nation, De Palma, and A Hologram For the King.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
(Nate Parker, 2016)
In the early 19th century, Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is born on a slave plantation in Virginia. He grows up, and comes to seize ahold of a grandiose, annihilating vision of racial justice: the eradication of the slaveholding class of the American South. With a band of followers, he pursues his dream to its foregone conclusion, namely his own execution, but in the process he manages to shock the system he despised, and his name and his fame (or, perhaps, his infamy) live on.
Probably the single best thing about The Birth of a Nation—and I've got to warn you, this is pretty unfortunate—is still just its title. That title is the cleverest fucking thing, but when it's also the cleverest thing Nate Parker ever gets up to here, it really must register as an estimable pity that it didn't get to be the title for a much better movie—one that, you know, actually managed to earn the subversive force of it.
Instead, Nation turns out to be Nate Parker's one man show: a somewhat aimless, even somewhat artless exercise in building in his own brand. Perhaps needless to say, that doesn't really do the material much justice, social or otherwise. It is certainly insufficient to overcome one's feeling that Parker himself is a very bad person, and this goes double when something like one-third of Parker's movie is devoted to a slavery-was-an-American-rape-camp narrative, giving Nation the same extraordinarily bitter flavor of a picture like (for example) Polanski's Repulsion—wherein your response is unavoidably conditioned by your extrinsic knowledge that the man bringing you this tale is, himself, far too deeply compromised to have the moral right to tell it. (Shucks. And after I promised myself I wouldn't mention any of that business, too.)
The fundamental problem with Nation isn't just that it was helmed by Nate Parker, the Bad Man, however. For one thing, there are more people involved in a movie than just its director, even if there are somewhat fewer in this case than there usually would be, once you take Parker's position as Nation's writer-director-producer-star-and-scenarist into account.
But even then, let's be crystal clear: the fact that Parker is the star of his own movie is definitely a problem, and not for any external reason on this count, either. Rather, it's because whatever acting prowess the man might possess—I rather enjoyed his supporting turn in Beyond the Lights—it has very obviously not been honed to the level it needs to be at for this particular role. Thus does Parker provide his presumably-complicated hero, a man decried by many as an actual madperson, with roughly one single note per any given scene throughout the picture; and, because Parker evidently lacks much in the way of imagination, that note is almost permanently set to "theatrically angry at the world," except in the scenes where that note is "noble martyr"; and, of course, there is a smattering other scenes, wherein there aren't any notes to speak of at all. Finally, there is always a certain lack of the heavenly fire you'd hope for, even in the notes Parker gets right.
So, seriously, I can't even tell anymore: should I be annoyed that the best performance in Nation comes either from noted white boy Armie Hammer, as Turner's master who thinks himself kind, or from Roger Guenveur Smith, as the Turner plantation's senior house negro who thinks himself wise? You know, as opposed to the deeply, deeply backgrounded ensemble of abused and desperate field slaves, not to mention the film's protagonist?
The point is, whatever cosmetic indications of hubris that Nation no doubt displays—e.g., the filmmaker's name showing up in the credits roughly eighty times, and that's before you even get to the smaller print—the most glaring overreach of all is when he decided that Nate Parker was the man destined to portray Nat Turner. (And this was clearly meant to be. I mean, gosh, they share the same Christian name and everything.)
, as I was saying: the fundamental problem with Nation
isn't Parker, the Bad Man, it's Parker, the Mediocre Director. He has no solid idea what his film ought to be, and it inevitably becomes something of a slurry (probably not intentionally), sometimes a very gripping slurry based on the content alone. However, it just as often invites comparisons that it cannot easily survive: very unfortunately, Nation
spends almost all of its two hour runtime laboring in the shadow of its immediate predecessor in bondage, McQueen's grim, methodical portrait of a human being being broken, 12 Years a Slave
; and then, once Turner's rebellion has (finally) arrived, it leaves McQueen's shadow only to cross over into the penumbra of the other
big slavery movie of recent years—namely, Tarantino's unhinged, borderline-pornographic historical revenge fantasy, Django Unchained
Well, in the end, Nation splits the difference between those two extraordinarily different movies, and that's just no place for any film to be, unless "resolutely middle-of-the-road" was, in fact, always Parker's goal. Indeed, Nation escapes a serious competition with Tarantino's picture solely because it appears to have no opinion to share about the Nat Turner Rebellion in the first place, except that a rebellion of some sort was justified, which is not necessarily something anyone needs a movie to tell them.
Therefore it cannot simply be a joyous explosion of rage, leavened with tragedy thanks to our foreknowledge that Turner's rebellion shall not succeed; nor can it be a troubled examination of the wisdom and morality of what Turner actually did (namely, annihilate families, including children—though, interestingly, not always!). In fact, once Nation arrives at the Rebellion itself, it starts to come perilously close to refusing to function on the level of basic storytelling, presenting the events of Turner's 48-hour war as a rushed-through montage that keeps getting more and more elliptical as it goes on—and never to much of any cognizable purpose, either. It is a baffling choice; and, ultimately, the story of the Rebellion shatters entirely in the editing room. It is something of a surprise, given that the rest of the film has been nothing much more than a sturdy progression of things-that-happened; it is not much of a surprise, however, that in very short order Parker's quotidian direction reasserts itself, and Turner gets his Braveheart finale.
The result, sadly, is a film that is possibly already a little too long for the mere thing that it winds up being—a competent but never compelling biography (and not a terribly accurate one, if I'm not mistaken)—and which is also vastly too short for what that written-in-blood title advertises it as—namely, an epic historical fiction that actually has something subversive and edgy to say about race, either then or now.
So why does Nation not grapple more forcefully with its questions of tactics and morality? Indeed, why does it do so precious little with what it does have? Is it because it is, effectively, Oscarsploitation, assuming itself to be important because of its subject matter, rather than on its merits? Possibly so. Another explanation presents itself, however. That's because it's Parker's very first feature length film as a director—and first-time directors don't typically cut their teeth on politically-charged prestige films about difficult characters for a good reason. Parker acquits himself well enough behind the camera—he certainly has a halfway-decent eye for the tableau, if not for how to place them within a sequence to make them truly land—but he has no idea what to focus on. Thus we get furtive glimpses of Turner's visions, when the full Ken Russell Freakout might have sold us on Turner's unerring certainty that he was on a bona fide mission from God. We get all the ugly interstitial scenes of slavery we could want, in order to give us all the old time holocaustal catharsis we could need, but Parker tends to shy away from letting his film truly absorb the violence inherent in his scenario. And we get the vague sensation that Parker is setting up Turner as the man who fired the first shots in the great war of liberation to come, yet, somewhat curiously—given the climate of 2016—there is not a whole lot of suggestion that this was a struggle that concluded without the fullest possible satisfaction.
Even so, the most redemptively cinematic moment in Nation's whole two hour span is its very final image: a match-dissolve from a black child to a black man, wearing the Union blue thirty years down the line. It is the littlest bit trite—though it is perhaps somewhat less trite, when you know precisely who is growing up to be whom. Either way, it does have a legitimate power to it—the kind of power the rest of the movie doesn't actually seem that interested in wielding.
But even then, if that's where this is all heading—"isn't it nice that the Civil War happened?" (and, yes, it was!)—then what we have is just about the safest movie about Nat Turner a man could possibly make. And, sure, a pretty decent one, at that.
So, if I have regrettably done very little but complain about the thing, it's only because the substantial good that Nation offers is just not very interesting to talk about. That's because—let's say it again—it's so fucking safe: from the way it redacts its chosen subject matter, to the way Parker services his vision of a bloody rebellion, even to the way that it characterizes Turner's breaking point. It is scarcely good enough to be safe, I'm afraid, and in its essential tidiness, you almost wish it were a grasping, stupid, ambitious mess, instead of being safe and just okay. Given its cool reception, I wouldn't be surprised if Parker himself wishes that, too.