by Antonio Cabello Ruiz-Barruecos
Without incurring in the tearful manipulation of its successful Sundance Film Festival racial referent (Fruitvale Station, 2013), we must not quiet down and nod at the umpteenth example of obviousness and affectation that is a movie like The Birth of a Nation (2016).
Not even when it dresses up in historical garb to narrate a period as terrifying and definitely “black” as slavery in the United States: the true-story life of Nat Turner, preacher and slave, who decides to follow the Lord’s will and stir an uprising against the barbarism perpetrated by the “landlord masters” of the state of Virginia. The total absence of a filmography or thorough bibliography on a figure such as Nat Turner’s is a symptom of a disease and justifies by itself the creation of a movie such as The Birth of a Nation.
In an act of bravado that doesn’t pay off at all considering the final result, filmmaking debutante Nate Parker – who acted in movies such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) and Beyond the Lights (2014) – chooses to name his epic after the masterful D. W. Griffith film of over a hundred years ago, The Birth of a Nation (2015). A work of historical relevancy and hallmark cinematography, Griffith created a movie that turned out to be key in providing the articulation of the cinematographical language, codifying film grammar, parallel montage and the use of off-screen as much as on-screen.
It is also one of the first historical film representations, a product of a country that was too young and lacking the mythical imaginarium later delivered by the Western. In this sense, Nate Parker creates his own “The Birth of a Nation” as a historical reply to a movie whose racist background controversially glorified the Ku Klux Klan and employed blackface.
Never mind the necessity of the 2016 film or its own ambition, Nate Parker proves with his movie to have learned very little from the hits and misses of the 1915 film, of the director he aims to imitate or the Hollywood system behind it. Please let his not be taken as an endorsement of racist discourse, of the Hays Code or the discriminatory practices of old Hollywood. If we’re to judge the movie solely on the merit of its footage and bereft of historical connotation, the 2016 version is a movie born blind, narrating its brutal story through the images and visual metaphors created by others; above all, Parker’s movie is a clumsy and artificial exercise – save for some rousing moments – conditioned by simplistic Manichaeism and dialogue that does not become the characters. Plainly speaking, it pales when compared to the ingénue, elegance and whiplash crudeness of 12 Years a Slave (2013).
In its final act, moved by the dolorous voice of Nina Simone, the epic begins to mirror William Wallace and Braveheart (1995), even if it lacks the mise en scene and powerful editing of Mel Gibson’s opus. It is then dusk, and our hero continues to wet his lips with an appetite for sweet freedom, but his cause goes on. We then understand that The Birth of a Nation isn’t an end but a means to an end.
Antonio Cabello / Writer (Jaén, Spain – 1993) Producer and editor for Fremantlemedia Spain on TV shows, he studied journalism and audiovisual communication at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He also studied poetry, humanism and film criticism. Five years ago he founded Esencia Cine, for which he has covered the Cannes and San Sebastián film festivals. Life is time.