Hollywood’s Slavery Franchise

Writer-director Nate Parker at Nat Turner in Birth of a Nation (Fox Searchlight)
The Birth of a Nation tries to rewrite movie history; Malick goes back to the future

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation simply isn’t emotional or visionary enough to erase the impact and importance of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation. It takes more than chutzpah to make a great movie or to overrun the contradictions accumulated around a film that did more than tell a one-sided story but revealed the enormous ambition, the deep, enraging imperfections, and the idiosyncrasy of America’s racial heritage. Parker’s attempt to elevate the 1831 insurrection and mass murders by the black slave Nat Turner suggests a juvenile, way-late, equal-time riposte — as if to answer Griffith’s old slander with an even older, bloodier slander. Sadly, it proves Parker doesn’t understand either Griffith’s film or Turner’s revolt.

Even though Turner acted out the savagery that Bernie Sanders supporters never connect to the buzzword “revolution” (William Styron controversially narrated Turner’s uprising in his 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner), Parker depicts the slave rebellion as an inevitable redress of evil. (He trades Griffith’s artistically innovative eye for his own jaded indie-movie eye. The white villains seem colorless and the black victims seem featureless.) Through Hollywood-style and Obama-era egotism, this angry, naïve epic about what was actually a failed insurgency is both Parker’s Reds and his self-martyring Braveheart. Lacking both radical form and revolutionary content, it’s an overinflated action movie.

Parker’s own feral naïveté works best in his performance as Turner, showing agonized radicalization — a curse stemming from the misfortune of gaining literacy and tragic enlightenment. Turner learns to read and is permitted to preach in order to pacify other slaves. He interprets scripture beyond the opiate that slavemasters imagined, as a call to self-respect and self-defense based on the Children of Israel’s perseverance. Turner’s sermons go from calming slaves to arousing them. But when this paradox drives Turner mad, Parker’s writing and directing implies a sense of righteousness. He only touches on the complexity of African-American religiosity but succumbs to purely secular politicization. Jonathan Demme’s film of Toni Morrison’s Beloved should have taught him to take a spiritual, existential approach to slavery’s horrors and the intelligence by which blacks prevailed. It’s also unfortunate that Parker didn’t learn how Christianity affected the transplanted Africans’ resistance (as seen in the next century’s civil-rights movement) that Steven Spielberg showed in Amistad.

Voyage of Time starts with a young girl standing in a factory lot, staring at the sky (“Dear child, you will always be moving forward in time”), then explores the mysteries of existence where science and faith meet in astonishment. Malick depicts the universe as if seen through a microscope of the imagination. Supernal images of bacteria, galaxies, deserts, geysers, volcanos, a plenitude of wildlife like Noah must have witnessed, give way to marine creatures, primates climbing down from trees, and then mankind. (“When did dust become life? From out of nothing, the beginning. Out of nothing: you,” narrates Brad Pitt in the Tree of Life father’s poetic voice.)

#related#Malick the animist moves into abstraction, like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey F/X, but he ends with amazement, like Godard’s late spiritual films. And this isn’t just IMAX novelty. Wise filmmakers have pursued this path before. I can best convey the magnitude of Malick’s short by saying it visualizes Richard Bennett’s awe-inspiring monologue in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons: “It must be in the sun. There wasn’t anything here in the first place. The earth came out of the sun, man came out of the earth . . . ” Malick brings cinema back to its phenomenological beginning.

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