Thursday, February 09, 2017

Best Movies of 2016 #6: Birth of a Nation

What I Liked About It: You won’t find a more intense emotional journey than this movie (although our next movie is a close second). Better than any other film, this movie captures the intense outrage of life in slavery.

The Problem: As others have pointed out, the biggest problem with this movie is that they don’t show Nat Turner killing any kids, which is to say, while it does an amazing job capturing the horror of Turner’s situation, it refuses to grapple with the true horror of Turner’s actions in response.

You’ll recall that I had problems with 12 Years a Slave. I thought that movie had the ideal source material for creating an intense bond between the hero and the audience, because, as a free man sold into slavery of the worst kind for a limited amount of time, it had a situation that we could all could totally identify with, and yet I felt that movie was too cold and alienating to let us fully emotionally bond with the hero. This movie has the opposite problem: It commits to the task of forcing our full and total emotional identification, but in this case we have a slave whose story is not an ideal candidate for that.

One can try to argue that Nat Turner’s actions were justified, even when he killed kids, if one wants, but you can’t deny that he was a weird guy. We get brief flashes of Turner’s hallucinations, but not enough. It shows us his logical motivations, but glosses over the fact that one of his major motivations was a solar eclipse. If the movie had wanted to deal more forthrightly with the reality of Turner’s life and actions, it would have needed to forgo some of that intense identification and let us be a little alienated, wondering at the real man’s unknowable tinge of madness.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Horror Feels More Real When It Has Ironies. They say that Trump is too hard to parody because it’s impossible to exaggerate how evil or stupid he is. This too is the problem writers face when portraying slavery. One way to do this is to establish that this owner is “one of the good ones” and then show how inhumanly horrific slavery is at its “best”. Few scenes will stay with you like the one where a slave refuses to eat, so the overseer casually knocks his teeth out to better forcefeed him, all while the “good” owner watches, guilt-ridden, but silent. It’s that look of “What choice do I have? He won’t eat!” that finally drives home the horror, and makes the ending feel inevitable.

1 comment:

Harvey Jerkwater said...

All of the below falls into the file folder of "I know you know:"

If they had shown the kids killed, it renders the story more morally complex, which the filmmakers didn't want. Lord knows that acknowledging moral complexity leads to the classic delegitimization tactic -- arguing that a group is wholly invalidated by bad actions and therefore the group can be discarded.

Yes, you could minimize that through careful writing and direction, showing it as a wholly expected result of the violence and dehumanization of slavery. Even if you pulled that off to cut down on the "oh, they were just a bunch of child murderers" dismissals, muddying the ethical waters would sap the movie of its selling point: righteous outrage.

This is where your critique is a little close to "the movie I saw is not the movie I wanted to see." Birth of a Nation is intended to get the audience fired up. Moral simplicity sells, man. While the movie would have been historically more accurate and more honest about the horrors of the place and time with the kids' murders included, is that trade-off what the movie needed?

Honestly, I lean towards yes, it would have benefited from greater honesty at the cost of moral simplicity. But there's a solid case for arguing the other way.

I know you know all of this. Just hadda say it.