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'Birth Of A Nation' Conforms To Hollywood's Standard Revenge Template

Oct 7, 2016
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This is FRESH AIR. Nate Parkers "The Birth Of A Nation" opens today. It had a triumphant world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. But in the intervening months, questions about the director's past have upstaged the film itself. This retelling of the slave rebellion by the black preacher Nat Turner stars Parker as Nat Turner and Armie Hammer as his master, Samuel Turner. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In "The Birth Of A Nation," writer-director Nate Parker tells the story of Nat Turner, the slave who believed himself to be a prophet and, in 1831, led a brutal revolt in Virginia. But the title tells you something else. Parker is taking on D.W. Griffith's epic, which portrayed the post-Civil War South as overrun with ex-slaves who threatened both the social order and the virtue of white women. That movie was the most influential argument for vigilantism made in this country, and it singlehandedly reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan, which Griffith presented as a holy cavalry. Now Parker answers Griffith with his own righteous vigilante tale.

"The Birth Of A Nation" was a sensation in January at the Sundance Film Festival. The Oscar nominations had just been announced and were so white. The Black Lives Matter movement was gaining traction. People were excited by a film about a black slave who fought against oppressors and by the arrival of a potentially major African-American filmmaker. Next year's Oscars would be saved. That was then. When I finally saw "The Birth Of A Nation," I was stunned to see that Parker had taken his rhetorical strategy from Mel Gibson who's thanked in the credits and whose "Braveheart" Parker has called his favorite movie.

Beat by beat, Parker's film conforms to the standard Hollywood B-movie revenge template. Here's the Gibson influence, a sneering fictional villain named Cobb who patrols the county for runaway slaves. We first see him - he's played by Jackie Earle Haley - chasing young Nat's father who snuck off a plantation to find food for his family. The father flees to keep from being killed, and Cobb never forgets. Decades later, he leads a savage gang rape of Turner's wife Cherry about whom historians know little.

The most cathartic moment comes near the end when Turner and Cobb wrestle over a knife. The problem is not that it didn't happen in life. All historical films distort facts. It's that it happens all the time in crude, dumb melodramas. There are good things in "The Birth Of A Nation." Parker plays Turner and his acting is more nuanced than his directing. His Nat has a soft, respectful presence. He can't forget the manners he learned from whites who let him live in their house and study the Bible. He only gets angry when he realizes he studied the wrong parts and that the slaveholders used him as a tool for preaching forbearance to restless slaves. When Nat baptizes a white man, his master, Samuel Turner - played by Armie Hammer - and a reverend - played by Mark Boone Jr. - challenge his audacity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIRTH OF A NATION")

ARMIE HAMMER: (As Samuel Turner) We've been good to you. My whole family has. And you go on and do something like this to me. A nigger baptizing a white man on my property - do you know how this makes us look? This could ruin everything we worked for. Boy, you'd better say something and quick.

NATE PARKER: (As Nat Turner) Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he has purchased with his own blood.

MARK BOONE JR: (As Reverend Zalthall) Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again.

HAMMER: (As Samuel Turner) You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.

BOONE: (As Reverend Zalthall) He that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost have never forgiveness, but is in danger of...

PARKER: (As Nat Turner) Beware of false prophets who come dressed in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.

EDELSTEIN: That scene is the beginning of Nat Turner's turn towards mysticism. And when he emerges from his Gethsemane, his eyes are ablaze, fixed on nothing in this world. The beginning of the rebellion is gripping, and there's an extraordinary image of Turner and his insurgents on horseback. They look like D.W. Griffith's pale riders but with a glow that recalls the martyrs of Picasso's "Guernica."

But there an omission in "The Birth Of A Nation" I can't forgive. Turner's insurgents hacked up and shot not just slaveholders but also children, including an infant, a 3-year-old boy who ran to greet them and a whole schoolroom of kids. There's even a ludicrous jump forward to black Union soldiers charging enthusiastically into battle, as if they're Turner's true descendants.

The question that "The Birth Of A Nation" poses about the use of violence against an oppressive system - terrorism, you'd have to call it - has been drowned out by another controversy. It centers on a college sexual assault for which Parker was acquitted but his friend and producing partner convicted, though the conviction was thrown out. I'd lament how this has changed the discussion about the film if I thought the film itself were vital. But a simple-minded revenge saga like "The Birth Of A Nation" would have added little to the national dialogue anyway.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, actress Gaby Hoffman - she co-stars in "Transparent" and was in the cast of "Girls." She started acting as a child and grew up in New York's famed Chelsea Hotel in the 1980s.

GABY HOFFMAN: I grew up with artists and drag queens and transvestites, as they were called then. And these were just my neighbors and friends and the people who were raising me.

DAVIES: Hope you can join us.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.