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Tyler

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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Jeffrey Wells:

This is a sentimental, briefly stirring, Braveheart-like attempt to deify a brave African-American hero — Nat Turner, the leader of a Virginia slave rebellion in August 1831. But a black Braveheart or Spartacus this is not. Nor is it, by my sights, an award-quality thing.

It will almost certainly be nominated, of course, because it delivers a myth that many out there will want to see and cheer, but don’t kid yourself about how good and satisfying this film is. It’s mostly a mediocre exercise in deification and sanctimony. I loved the rebellion as much as the next guy but it takes way too long to arrive — 90 minutes.

Parker, the director, writer and star, sank seven years of his life into this film, and invested as much heart, love and spiritual light into the narrative as he could. But the bottom line is that he’s more into making sure that the audience reveres the halo around Turner’s head and less into crafting a movie that really grabs and gets you, or at least pulls you in with the harsh realism, riveting performances and narrative, atmospheric discipline that made Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years A Slave an undisputed masterpiece. . . .

In HE’s version Turner doesn’t wear a halo and is given qualities that make him less of a saint and more of a tough, flesh-and-blood, hard-knocks guy. The land owner injustices and atrocities simmer for about an hour, and then the rebellion kicks in with Turner and his army getting their bloody revenge and doing their best to fight the law and the white militias for the second hour, and then the capture, execution and wrap-up for the last 10 or 15 minutes. And no religious ceremonies, no angels, no choir music and no apparitions….just stark realism.

If you ask me the Sundance hipster smooch brigade went to The Birth of a Nation determined to celebrate it as much as possible. The idea, trust me, was to demonstrate to the world and particularly to the slow-to-get-it crowd in Los Angeles how much hipper, cooler and sensitive they are regarding the 21st Century African-American experience and particularly how much wiser they are than the unfortunate Academy attitudes that resulted in OscarsSoWhite.

Is there religious stuff in this film? If so, I wonder to what degree it was a conscious nod to the religious stuff in Griffith's film.

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Darren H wrote:
: Has Jeff Wells ever written anything insightful about a film ever?

Actually, yes. I have no idea whether this is one of those times.

I do know that I'm curious to see if anybody who thought Selma was overrated (as I did) comes out in favour of this film.

(I can't remember, were you one of the people who thought 12 Years a Slave was overrated? Wells calls it an "undisputed masterpiece" in the excerpt above, so I wouldn't be surprised if your sensibilities were at odds on this film too.)

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Darren H   

None of us have seen the film, Peter, so this is a silly conversation to begin with, but that snippet is typical of Wells' brand of "criticism." He compares The Birth of a Nation to Braveheart (because it's another film about a rebellion) and to 12 Years a Slave (because it's another film about slavery) and then immediately speculates about whether it's award-worthy and condescendingly dismisses supporters of the film as the "Sundance hipster smooch brigade." He's a gossip reporter and gadfly, and whatever insight he's provided over the years has been limited to exposing the narcissism and stupidity of celebrity worship--usually through his own behavior. By "insightful" I intended to mean "providing insight into the art of cinema."

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Wells redux:

It shouldn’t take a genius to read between the lines of Todd McCarthy‘s Hollywood Reporter review of The Birth of a Nation, which premiered in Park City yesterday afternoon. Keep in mind that every reviewer filing for a major outlet knew they had to write very carefully lest they be perceived as having a blockage of some kind.

Toward the end of his review McCarthy notes that The Birth of a Nation “offers up more than enough in terms of intelligence, insight, historical research and religious nuance as to not at all be considered a missed opportunity.” Parker did pretty well considering, he’s saying. The film has issues here and there but it’s not half bad.

“Far more of the essentials made it into the film than not,” McCarthy goes on. “Its makers’ dedication and minute attention are constantly felt and the subject matter is still rare enough onscreen as to be welcome and needed, as it will be the next time and the time after that.” Translation: Parker will be refining his abilities as he goes along and may quite possibly make a truly world-class film down the road.

We’ve all seen Sundance films before where the audience reacts more to the subject matter or a film’s political position, so what happened yesterday is no surprise. . . .

Wells also notes that a *lot* of the people within the theatre at the time of its screening were involved in the making of it, or had close ties to its makers, so... take the stories of the standing ovation with a grain of salt. Lord knows I've been to plenty of festival premieres just here in Vancouver where a film that was mediocre at best got tons of applause because everyone's friends and family came out to support the filmmakers.

Darren H wrote:
: . . . that snippet is typical of Wells' brand of "criticism."

Perhaps. But he seems genuine in his response, however wrong it might be. I've refrained from posting the last couple of Brian Godawa's reviews to this board because he seems increasingly trollish. Wells, however, not so much. (He might be trollish on occasion, but he posts enough stuff that isn't that I still think he's worth paying attention to.)

: He compares The Birth of a Nation to Braveheart (because it's another film about a rebellion) . . .

Yes, Alissa also makes this point ("Turner is a complicated figure, and one could argue the film unduly valorizes him (comparisons to Braveheart have been rampant since the film’s premiere)"). She mentions the "valorization" problem again just three sentences later, along with other "flaws".

: By "insightful" I intended to mean "providing insight into the art of cinema."

Well, he's certainly capable of that, too. He might not write formal essays, but he gets at things worth getting at sometimes.

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Wells again:

The reign of terror in post-revolutionary France happened over a ten-month period (September 1793 to July 1794), and was marked by mass executions of “enemies of the revolution.” I don’t want to go out on a crazy limb but a distant cousin of this mentality is alive and well in Park City right now, and amongst the general community of p.c. goose-steppers who are excited/delighted by the love shown for Nate Parker‘s The Birth of a Nation. Over the last 12 hours or so it’s been hinted a few times that my being a Birth disser (at least as far as the over-praise is concerned) isn’t good for my social, political or financial health, and that I should think about getting with the program. . . .

And so on. Wouldn't surprise me if there was some truth to this, especially since Wells didn't "diss" The Birth of a Nation all *that* much (as one commenter puts it, Wells basically gave the film a 6 or 6.5 out of 10 -- and frankly, the only other review linked to from this thread so far, i.e. Alissa's, doesn't sound *that* much more positive either). Wells did, however, comment on the audience that has been praising the film, so it's not surprising he'd get some pushback from them.

One day we'll all see the film for ourselves and decide who's really speaking truth/power to power/truth here. But Wells's reference to Robespierre certainly resonates with other references I've seen to that person in the various culture wars that have taken place over the last year or two.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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NBooth   

Based on the excerpts here, I would venture to speculate that any blowback Wells has recieved has less to do with his opinions than the fact that (how to put this delicately?) he's a tool. I have no sympathy for a critic who pre-emptively pulls the tired old "reverse racism" card and then cries foul when he's taken to task. Based on a little google-research, together with other snippets I've seen posted around here, I get the impression that Wells likes to play victim. A lot.

Edited by NBooth

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He makes money from advertising, and so he's pretty obviously been happy to stir up trouble for the sake of attention. The more his site became ad-based, the more he became prone to baiting controversy.

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NBooth wrote:
: I have no sympathy for a critic who pre-emptively pulls the tired old "reverse racism" card and then cries foul when he's taken to task. Based on a little google-research, together with other snippets I've seen posted around here, I get the impression that Wells likes to play victim. A lot.

He does, but -- especially in a festival environment -- I don't think we can assume that he's gone straight from watching the film to writing the review. There's a whole period in-between where he sees how the film is being contextualized by festivalgoers etc., and he's reacting, in part, to that. So I'm not sure how much of what he said can really be considered "pre-emptive" here.

As for Darren's objection to Wells's speculation about the film's Oscar chances, Paste Magazine just sent out an e-mail with the headline "Birth of a Nation, Which Could Be Next Year's Best Picture, Sets Sales Record at Sundance". So *that's* the narrative that's already taking shape. And Wells, who doesn't think the film deserves to be Best Picture, is pushing back against that *now* -- because really, why wait?

As for whether Wells is a "tool"... well, one regular critic of his on Twitter is another film blogger who I really like, and who has recently admitted that he was being tool-ish to another favorite movie blogger of mine a few years ago, so... I just follow them all and hope that they all get along in the end some day.

Overstreet wrote:
: The more his site became ad-based, the more he became prone to baiting controversy.

He's lost advertisers because of stuff he's written too, though.

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Darren H   

As for Darren's objection to Wells's speculation about the film's Oscar chances, Paste Magazine just sent out an e-mail with the headline "Birth of a Nation, Which Could Be Next Year's Best Picture, Sets Sales Record at Sundance".

It's not that I object to his speculation; it's that his speculation is not insightful. (Paste magazine -- at least since Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks stopped writing for them -- is also not insightful.) Wells has a gross tendency to make people talk about Wells instead of about film, as evidenced by this fairly pointless thread.

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Darren H wrote:
: Wells has a gross tendency to make people talk about Wells instead of about film, as evidenced by this fairly pointless thread.

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but whose fault is that? The first two Wells pieces I posted were about *the film*. If everyone else would rather diss Wells instead of deal with specific points that he makes, then I'm not sure how much of the blame for that can be laid at Wells's feet.

And Wells is the kind of guy who *has* sponsored screenings for films that he thought deserved more recognition in the past (during awards season, sure, but still), so, y'know, for all his eccentricities, he really does care *about film*. It's not just about celebrity gossip for him.

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3 hours ago, Peter T Chattaway said:

 

He does, but -- especially in a festival environment -- I don't think we can assume that he's gone straight from watching the film to writing the review. There's a whole period in-between where he sees how the film is being contextualized by festivalgoers etc., and he's reacting, in part, to that. So I'm not sure how much of what he said can really be considered "pre-emptive" here.

Yeah, well, I've never been to Sundance, but I've been to TIFF, SXSW, and a handful of regional festivals. Perhaps there is some lag time in between press screenings and going live, but if it is spent comparing notes with other critics, that's not something I've seen. If anything the deadline pressures are more severe (because there are at times several screenings per day). 

Do we swap "what have you liked/what have you not" while in line or over a quick meal? Sure...with our friends. Do we hear what people say in the row behind us while waiting for the show to start? Yeah, sure. Do we note the temperature in the room (or walk outs)? Yeah, sure. But it's dangerous to generalize from such anecdotal example. And anyway, Wells' last paragraph isn't even about others' response to the film--it's about his assertions regarding their reasons for doing so.

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Eric Kohn gives the film a B, e.g.:

While Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" was a more sophisticated, artful means of reckoning with slavery's past, "Birth of a Nation" plays like a formulaic but undeniably pointed corrective to mainstream American cinema. Its landmark Sundance deal — $17.5 million plunked down by Fox Searchlight — speaks directly to the embarrassing market gap for black history in the movies. Produced outside the system (by an actor infuriated by the dearth of substantial black roles, no less) and now grandfathered into it, the narrative surrounding "Birth of a Nation" holds more power than the actual film. But this weight is also embedded in Turner's treatment of the material.

Turner's 48-hour rebellion, which culminated in hundreds of executions (including his own), unfolds in the final act with a wild cacophony of bullets, smoke, and blood. Turner's barnyard showdown against a white posse apes the images of "Braveheart" as it tracks the two groups' collision in slo-mo. In the heat of the action, Turner sinks a blade into the heart of a white aggressor as their eyes meet, recalling a similarly harrowing moment in "Saving Private Ryan." Parker seems to run these tropes through a rejuvenating filter, redirecting them toward a long-neglected narrative.

These tropes just as often include a routine sentimentalism that keeps the movie grounded in a series of conventional beats. Turner's stump speech, delivered as the music swells and Parker cuts to various faces in the crowd, feels especially heavy-handed — but once again, not entirely vacuous. "We're alive, seeing through the eyes that have been denied us," he asserts, and it's not a big step to assume Parker's addressing his audience as well.

kenmorefield wrote:
: And anyway, Wells' last paragraph isn't even about others' response to the film--it's about his assertions regarding their reasons for doing so.

Well, presumably he is responding not only to the actual buzz among the moviegoers, but to whatever post-screening Q&A-style interaction there might have been with the filmmakers, dozens of whom (if I recall correctly) reportedly gathered in front of the screen after the screening was over.

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5 hours ago, Peter T Chattaway said:

 

kenmorefield wrote:
: And anyway, Wells' last paragraph isn't even about others' response to the film--it's about his assertions regarding their reasons for doing so.

Well, presumably he is responding not only to the actual buzz among the moviegoers, but to whatever post-screening Q&A-style interaction there might have been with the filmmakers, dozens of whom (if I recall correctly) reportedly gathered in front of the screen after the screening was over.

That's fair. There could have been questions or exchanges in the Q&A that revealed something akin to the feelings he discusses. 

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Sam Adams:

Although Parker, best known for starring in the romantic drama Beyond the Lights, has called Birth "a black Braveheart," his rough-hewn directorial debut is less a traditional awards movie than Ava DuVernay's Selma from 2014, or even the Philadelphia-shot Creed from last year. The movie's substantial power is lessened by significant lapses in judgment - the glowing figures who appear to Turner in religious visions tilt perilously close to kitsch - and the movie's failure to delineate characters beyond Turner and his white owner (The Social Network's Armie Hammer) lessens its dramatic scope.

But when Parker fills the screen with the faces of young slaves, framed so tightly that their 19th-century clothing drops out of sight, you're no longer watching a period piece or dead history, but looking at the faces of young black men in 2016, demanding their humanity be fully recognized. It's far from a perfect film, but it fills an aching need in society and the movie industry both, and should find a substantial audience waiting for it in the fall.

The more I hear about the "religious visions", the more I wonder how closely the film's conceptualization of them will come to the sorts of visions we used to see in silent movies (i.e. back when the original Birth of a Nation was made).

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Owen Gleiberman:

So how is the movie? It’s scrupulous and honorable, with moments of scalding power. But it’s also just good enough to make me wish it had been better. No one can accuse Parker of lacking ambition. It took seven years to bring The Birth of a Nation to the screen, and its very title tells you that he’s out to create a counter-mythology: a film that might theoretically displace DW Griffith’s sweeping and scandalous 1915 silent epic that’s one of the foundation stones of Hollywood history. What’s more, to present a drama of slavery not so long after 12 Years a Slave, the most searing and artful movie ever made on the subject, is to scale a very high bar. Parker proves a competent filmmaker, but in a slightly flat, middle-of-the-road way that’s halfway between Edward Zwick and Ron Howard. If the film were as good as Zwick’s 1989 Glory, I’d have no complaints, but it isn’t. It features a musical score that’s atrocious in its bland sentimentality, and there’s something a little too cautiously retrograde about the whole thing. It’s like a rerun of Roots with more blood. . . .

The rebellion, given its total anarchy, unfolds in a nearly dignified fashion. The planning, the gathering of weapons, even Nat walking into the bedroom of a plantation owner and planting an axe in his chest: all of it feels more staid than sensational. That tone expresses a dimension of the film’s theme, since Nat insists that their motivation is freedom, not vengeance. The climax of The Birth of a Nation is neither demagogic nor bloodthirsty (though it could have been both). When Nat plunges a knife into the throat of the most despicable white man we’ve seen in the film (he’s played by Jackie Earle Haley, a virtuoso of vileness), the camera gazes at the act objectively; the oppressor simply got what was coming to him. But watching that moment, I realised that what it’s not just vengeance we are distant from. We’re removed from what’s going on inside Nat. Planning and executing this historic insurrection, he never shows fear, or doubt, or rage. He’s so squarely heroic that he has no other dimension.

Meanwhile, in Screen Daily, Nate Parker says he received filmmaking advice from, yes, Glory director Edward Zwick and, yes, Braveheart director Mel Gibson.

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NBooth   

A.A. Dowd also gives it a B.

 In its worst moments, The Birth Of A Nation gains the faint impression of bad dress-up, as some of the actors grapple awkwardly with their courtly dialogue. Parker’s direction of the camera is similarly inconsistent: For every striking, poetic image (like blood erupting from a husk of corn) there’s a misjudged visual idea (like the cheesy Star Wars holograms that appear to Turner in his dreams). This is very much a debut feature, a passion project from an enthusiastic director still learning the craft.

[snip]

Parker is addressing a long-standing oversight, applying a common cinematic language to a story Hollywood has never touched. He’s giving a different audience, an underrepresented one, the conventionally stirring bio-drama white audiences take completely for granted, the same way that black filmmakers in the ’70s put their own spin on the boilerplate genre movies of their day. That makes The Birth Of A Nation an important movie, if still an imperfect one, and it seems good enough reason for Sundance to award it top honors. 

So it looks like--among critics, at least--a consensus is emerging: not Great Cinema, but Important Cinema. I can live with that, actually. 

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A.A. Dowd wrote:
: He’s giving a different audience, an underrepresented one, the conventionally stirring bio-drama white audiences take completely for granted . . .

This is the point where I ask my Christian cinephile brethren how we would respond if someone pointed to a film like Woodlawn or whatever and said it's an "important" movie because it's giving us the conventionally stirring drama (about racial issues, even!) that mainstream audiences take completely for granted.

It's okay to like films that are merely okay if you think they're important, of course. But note that a number of these reviews haven't simply commented on the film's merits *as a film*; from Wells to Dowd, they have commented on the film's *award-worthiness*. And that's a whole other conversation. Is it better to reward "important" films over "great" films? I would tend to say no, but obviously, opinions will vary.

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