Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Reel Facts & Opinions: THE BIRTH OF A NATION - A Tale of Two Films

One of the most anticipated and controversial films of 2016 has arrived in the form of Nate Parker’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION. It is a film which re-claims its title from another notorious movie from 100 years ago, but now has to struggle with its own issues.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION is based on the true story of Nat Turner, the enslaved man who led a revolt in Virginia in 1831. The film premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival back in January, where it was met with critical acclaim. It won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, and was bought by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million; the largest deal ever for a Sundance film. THE BIRTH OF A NATION has been praised for its acting, directing, soundtrack, and cinematography…with many critics hailing it as a new American classic and a strong contender come Awards Season.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION has strong roots in the past. Director Nate Parker, who also produced, wrote, and stars in the film, took the title from the 1915 silent film of the same name by D.W. Griffith. The 1915 film is a landmark movie for pioneering techniques such as close-ups, fade-outs, and a battle sequence with hundreds of extras. It also was the first to build the plot to a climax, to use color-tinting, to dramatize history alongside fiction, and to feature its own score by an orchestra. It was the first 12-reel film (190 minutes), and the first to be screened at the White House. Today, the 1915 BIRTH OF A NATION is regarded as the film which brought us into the modern era.

But the film was not without controversy. It portrayed black men as unintelligent and aggressive towards women, with many of the roles played by white actors with black face-paint. On top of that, the Klu Klux Klan is shown as a heroic force, and the film is credited with inspiring the “second era” of the KKK in Georgia the same year with the film being used as a recruiting tool. Despite being innovative in cinema history, the 1915 BIRTH OF A NATION is seldom mentioned in film circles and treated like a black sheep.

Fast-forward to modern times, and director/writer/producer Nate Parker has re-claimed the title in an effort to challenge racism in America. By telling the true story of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, it was clearly Parker’s hope that the strong and iconic title of THE BIRTH OF A NATION could finally be remembered for something good.

But it seems that iconic title may have a curse upon it, as Nate Parker’s film arrives under a cloud. A few months back, the revelation was made that in 1999, Parker and his roommate, while students at Penn State University, were accused of raping a fellow student. Parker was acquitted while the roommate was guilty before the verdict was overturned…and the accuser would commit suicide in 2012. It’s a point that has people turning heads and asking questions, as Parker’s new film does depict a brutal rape. On top of that, in 2014 Parker made comments which were taken to be homophobic, which included him saying that he would never take on the role of a gay man, which he considered to be “emasculating”; a curious choice for someone who is putting himself out there as a flagbearer for civil rights.

Even though the 1915 film and the 2016 version could not be further apart in messaging, intent, and style, both films now seem to have a stigma attached to them; where the achievements of the film are overshadowed by the beliefs of the filmmaker. The backlash may have even started before the movie is even in theatres; advertising for the film, by way of TV spots and trailers, has been scarce. Parker may have put himself into the same class as directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski; two famed filmmakers whose actions have had people boycotting their films for decades. The debate can rage on for another 100 years if buying a ticket to see the new THE BIRTH OF A NATION shows support for Parker, but closer to the here and now…even more interesting to see if the Academy decides to support it when the Oscar voting begins. A movie should be judged by what it puts on the screen, even if it’s difficult to separate it from the people who made it. THE BIRTH OF A NATION at least deserves a fair shake. History will take care of the rest.
Read Reel Speak's review of THE BIRTH OF A NATION HERE

No comments:

Post a Comment

A few rules:
1. Personal attacks not tolerated.
2. Haters welcome, if you can justify it.
3. Swearing is goddamn OK.