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What Does an “Important” Film Look Like?

Dissecting Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ Ava DuVernay’s ‘13th,’ and black activist art in 2016

Ava DuVernay and Nate Parker (Getty Images)
Ava DuVernay and Nate Parker (Getty Images)

Satire, or something else? Picture an open-mouthed, sneering Donald Trump flanked by the words, “The Birth of a Nation.” Good shade. But what if the image were not a reference to the fervent racism that’s bubbled up to the top of the ballot this election year, but to this season’s hot new slavery movie? Last week, after the first presidential debate, Fox Searchlight tweeted a still of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton mid-debate that’d been refashioned into an impromptu ad for Nate Parker’s feature directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, its title raised from the inky constitutional backdrop like a newly cracked secret code from the Founding Fathers. “Hil and Don know what’s up,” read the text of the tweet.

Better this, the kind of cute deflection you might expect from a social media intern, than the defensiveness we’ve come to expect from Parker, in particular, over continued discussion of the director’s 2001 rape trial and acquittal. It almost reads as satire — if it weren’t an ad, it’d be a political cartoon, an expression of what, for many, is a contemporaneous set of uneasy political choices. Vote for him, vote for her. See the movie — don’t see the movie. These choices are not equivalent, but they’re linked. We elect the politicians we want to represent and speak for us; artists represent us, too, in a different but relevant sense. That’s what makes it urgent for artists to get it right. But is a movie automatically important, inherently brave, because it’s about slavery? Nate Parker’s promotion of this film has depended on people’s willingness to take its moral seriousness for granted due to its subject matter: the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, whom Parker plays in the film. It doesn’t help that the movie shimmers with studio-backed prestige. Fox Searchlight has made two black-directed movies about slavery in the past three years, one of which was 12 Years a Slave, which won Best Picture. The studio has lately taken to deploying slavery like a cheat code — bonus level: The Oscars.

There’s nothing mysterious or remarkable about a studio wanting success for its movie — nor is there anything remarkable about this particular movie. Despite being burdened with complicated questions about its maker and its subject, The Birth of a Nation is not a morally serious film. It is not a film in which its characters, slaves by and large, emerge onscreen with any particular humanity or individuality. It is not a film attuned to the bare facts of their experience or existence. Nor is it a film that does any modicum of justice to Nat Turner, the man it’s supposedly about. But with the early encouragement of critics and distributors and the standing ovations of rapt festival audiences over the past 10 months, the movie has enjoyed — to the tune of a record $17.5 million distribution deal, early Oscar prognostication, and willful critical ignorance — the chance to masquerade as something bigger, better than it is.

Not anymore.

“These books are for white folks,” says Elizabeth Turner, Nat’s slave mistress, while showing young Nat her library. She has just learned, to her surprise, that he knows how to read. “They’re full of things your kind wouldn’t understand.” She hands him a Bible instead.

The real Nat Turner was a man who, per the confession he gave upon being captured after two months of hiding in 1831, saw visions. He was a preacher, but more than that, he understood himself to be a prophet, haunted by signs and symbols on trees and in the sky, and by violent visions of white and black spirits caught in an eternal struggle. Parker smartly reproduces some of Turner’s specific visions in the movie. We see an ear of corn slowly begin to ooze dark blood that Turner said was the blood of Christ, and soon after, we see the stunning eclipse that signaled it was time to begin the revolt.

These are unsettling visions, all the more strange and effective for arising in a film that, being about slavery, is already full of horror. At their best, these moments lend Parker’s movie a moody, unpredictable undercurrent that almost feels novel; I’m not sure we’ve been given a reason to be creeped out by the spiritual subtext of a slavery film before. Turner’s feverish, primal dreams are of white men with gargoyle faces hiding behind trees as tribal music eggs on some inner part of himself. He somehow learns how to read as a child slave while surrounded by fellow slaves who couldn’t do so. His fiery sermons arise out of nowhere, summoning up an otherwise unapparent rage.

The Birth of a Nation is in theory as much about the role of Christianity on plantations as it is about slavery and insurrection — a fascinating, worthy subject that too few films about slavery have given us a chance to consider at length. Parker and his cowriter, Jean McGianni Celestin, don’t rise to that challenge; every moment that seems to get to the heart of the matter is side story or interlude, reduced to a pile of showy arthouse details.

That is because this is ultimately not the story of Nat Turner. It’s about Nate, who tries to use Turner’s story to fashion himself into our own modern black directorial hero, a leader of the charge, the revolutionary icon of his own story. Since the beginning of his press tour at Sundance in January, Parker has sold his movie as an important intervention in our current debates on race and historical violence. “You say to yourself, ‘How will I use my art to address the injustices in my life?’” he told The Hollywood Reporter in January. “Nat Turner is a hero to me. I feel like he was someone that used the means that he had to face injustice.” Hence the titular allusion to the 1915 The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith’s film, our nation’s first blockbuster, spurred the return of the Ku Klux Klan and incited countless acts of racial violence; Parker’s film hopes to stoke a similar anger, if not social violence, among contemporary black Americans who’ve increasingly felt that they have the right to fight back.

Revisionism is not the problem here: The most challenging, interesting art about history offers an interpretation, not merely a realistic reenactment. Art should do what journalism or scholarship cannot, bending the facts toward its creators’ feelings about what happened in the past, or as in the case of Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, make reference to what’s happening right now, in the present day.

The Birth of a Nation has the opposite problem. It feels unusually rote, like scrolling through a pile of woke memes or Nate Parker’s costumed selfies from a plantation tour. Any commercial film about Nat Turner would inevitably conform to some given narrative of heroism, yet Parker bends history to the convenience of his own ego, reducing a pervasive, systemic historical evil to an escalating series of traumatizing incidents that his character must witness — a slave’s brains blown out, a white slavemaster’s erection as he ogles a teenage slave girl. These moments of violence are worth their weight in horrified reaction shots. We don’t watch an unnamed slave getting his teeth knocked out one by one for his sake. We don’t know that slave, but we do know Nat Turner, whose face we watch as it happens.

Parker has made a movie in which a person born into slavery nevertheless has the capacity to be continually shocked — shocked! — by its horror. It’s almost quaint: Before the Nat Turner of Parker’s movie can get angry about slavery, he must bear witness to slavery as if he, too, were not a slave. This is an invention meant to inspire the conviction that what matters is not slavery, but the ability to rise above it — which of course Nat Turner, who was caught, hanged, and dismembered, did not. He was still a hero. Nat Turner did not have to stand outside of slavery and gawk at the familiar in order to feel righteous. And neither do we.

Nate Parker believes he must chew our history for us before we can swallow it. He believes that is his job; he believes we’re better off for it. And so he has flattened Nat Turner’s story into something basic and accessible. He’s made a compilation cover album — Slavery’s Greatest Hits, by Nate Parker — that, more than anything else, acknowledges his own labor, his own presence, his own valiance. “I made this film for one reason,” he said at Sundance, “with the hope of creating change agents.”

Contrast this with Ava DuVernay and her marvelous new documentary 13th, which stokes our anger by telling us a story many of us may think we know — the racism of the American prison industry — with thrilling, devastating precision. A primer on the ostensibly slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment, 13th drops on Netflix on Friday, the same day The Birth of a Nation reaches theaters. It is much better: angrier, more analytical, energized by some of the same activist impulses steering Parker’s film, but with the moral and intellectual honesty his movie lacks. Where Parker strains for self-centered artistic and political importance, DuVernay gets her hands dirty on her subject, surprising us with the insights of her guests, the devastation of her archival images, and the power of her political sentiment.

On paper, 13th is that stale, dreaded “talking-head documentary,” featuring Angela Davis, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michelle Alexander, and an extraordinary range of others, as well as a few surprises, like Newt Gingrich. It has the makings of something more pleasantly educational than fiery. And yet watching it, you get swept up by the momentum of DuVernay and Co.’s argument. You get carried away, for example, by a long segment that juxtaposes recent racist comments by Donald Trump with violent images from the civil rights era. On the nose, maybe, until those images get mixed with footage from Trump rallies, at which angry whites supporting Trump jostle black youths with the same ferocity that students and parents at Little Rock Central High School showed the Little Rock Nine in 1957. Many of us assumed as much, but to see it is a shock.

And so is DuVernay’s starting point: an analysis of, of all things, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. (That movie is having quite a week.) Art and representation are an essential part of DuVernay’s argument. Griffith manifests white Americans’ fears of an encroaching freed-slave population with an actual body, a real-life menace — not a phantasm or an abstraction, but a person you could see all around you. DuVernay moves, swiftly, to a wide-ranging history of retaliatory white violence and the renewed social prominence of incarceration, coming back again and again to the tangles of politics, economics, and art (and propaganda). Her talking heads walk us through the drug wars, Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” the Clinton-era crime bill, the incentives that created corporate demand for bodies in prison and which, to this day, make fundamental prison reform hard to imagine. And on and on. It has the makings of a term paper. But DuVernay’s cutting — the way she invents conversations between her interviewees, some of whom do not agree — adds a layer of conflict or, when they’re all echoing each other, political immediacy that surpasses the figures, charts, and historical bullet points populating the film.

By the end, you’ll understand the impact: on black lives, but also on black art, which — as DuVernay’s pointed use of hip-hop and R&B reminds us — has long wrestled with this devastation. Seeing DuVernay’s documentary alerted me to the fabricated urgency of Nate Parker’s ambitions. He’s vying to be a spark plug. That may make you sympathetic to his intentions; he’s at the very least part of a long tradition, and he’s made a movie that’s intended to be anthologized and later regarded for its importance, for what it “says” about the black culture of its moment. 13th is less anxious about its own importance; what matters is the importance of its subject. DuVernay’s film is all the more satisfying for being an example of the art it catalogs. It is an archive of other black artists’ attempts to reckon a history of blackness inseparable from being criminalized and brutalized. It’s also a testament to the possibilities afforded an artist for whom the story of race is one of communal struggle, not an exceptional narrative. Which makes it a story for our own times: the kind of passionate, difficult film America needs, not the hero tale some believe we want to see.