‘The Birth of a Nation’ May Be the Most Timely Film the Oscar Race Has Ever Seen

'The Birth of a Nation': Why
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Following a screening of Sundance prize-winner “The Birth of a Nation” last week, I took out my phone and saw the horrifying news coming out of Dallas. After watching the events of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion unfold on the screen — depicted with impassioned grace by director Nate Parker — a wave of thoughts and emotions was crashing inside.

Of course, it would be intellectually careless to equate the actions of Dallas shooter Micah Johnson with the retaliation of slaves against their oppressors. They’re not at all one and the same. But there is shared DNA between the emotions that sparked the two events.

Critics may invoke the police brutalities of Oakland, Ferguson, Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights while declaring that Parker’s film, which opens Oct. 7, comes at an explosive time for U.S. race relations, but the Dallas shootings put that tension in an even stronger light. This is a film about exasperation. It’s a film about breaking points. It’s a film, ultimately, about anger. And in 2016, when attention around race and social barriers continues to trend upward, it makes “Birth of a Nation” — like “Do the Right Thing” before it — all the more provocative.

Parker, one of 683 newly invited members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, addressed these issues in an interview with Variety, though he stressed that Turner and Johnson were mainly connected by the color of their skin.

“The reality is injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Parker said. “If we can believe that, if we can quote Gandhi alongside Dr. King, then we’re not going to look at Nat Turner as someone we can’t cheer for. This was his attempt to throw a wrench into a system that would not only decimate him but would decimate his children’s children. That’s biblical. In the bible it says a good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children. So the question is, at what point will you break a system that not only oppresses you but is sure to oppress generations to come? That’s not revenge.”

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According to Parker, the eruption in Dallas was the end of a “72-hour question mark for America.” And the question, he said, becomes “how are we going to heal America? This is not the first time we’ve been in this situation. It isn’t the second time. It isn’t the 50th time where a black man was killed and we’re demanding answers, or there was some type of retaliation.” He added: “People don’t realize there’s a direct connection between law enforcement and a damaged relationship with people of African descent. The very first police officers [in the American south] were slave patrols. They were called paddy rollers and their job was to patrol, or paddy roll, around each plantation to make sure slaves didn’t leave. This relationship is not new, but we don’t teach it in schools. We don’t talk about it. We treat everything like an isolated event. We villainize the victim instantly. But what people don’t understand is that anger goes somewhere. It doesn’t just disappear.”

President Obama, during his speech at the Dallas memorial on Tuesday, offered a similar message of transparency when it comes to race relations: “If we cannot even talk about these things honestly and openly … we will never break this dangerous cycle.”

No movie this year is likely to be any more about right now than “Birth,” which so expertly navigates these particular themes. And Parker does so with aplomb long before a dagger of a line is uttered late in the film in response to the fallout of Turner’s rebellion: “Everywhere people are getting killed for no reason but being black.”

Oddly, I’ve heard from a number of people in recent months who have attempted to douse the flames of the film’s debut in Park City, where it was met with a rapturous response. “It’s traditional to a fault,” I heard. “It’s waiting to blow up in the season’s face,” i.e., it doesn’t have what it takes to contend as an awards player, and that after last year’s #OscarsSoWhite dust-up, it’s a whole new controversy waiting to happen.

I couldn’t disagree more. Parker’s film is exceptional, bold, refined. The director’s own performance as Turner, easily his best work yet, is heart-wrenching and pure. Cinematographer Elliot Davis’ camera effortlessly lingers on powerful iconography throughout. Along with fellow Sundance bow “Manchester by the Sea,” it is one of the best pieces of cinema I’ve seen this year. In so many words, if this isn’t an Oscar contender, then I don’t know what is.

But we can save the accolades and trophies for another discussion. For now we have a work of art that is sure to be the most incendiary movie event of the year, and moreover, one that will be viewed through an entirely different, complicated lens should any further violent reprisals come in response to abhorrent police action across the country.

“F— y’all,” a member of the audience at my screening shouted at a screen full of hateful white faces during the film’s final moments. “F— all y’all.”

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  1. Joe says:

    All the things going on in the inner cities is still going to go on. Let’s be honest, we have poor people all over the country. We have the president shipping in more poor people, so we’ll have more poor people. Yet, only certain neighborhoods are that violent. They are uneducated morons and it’s become part of their sub-culture to stay that way. They kill more of their ‘own’ and the ‘color’ of their skin that went to my school wasn’t killing anybody and actually did quite well. They would be seen as ‘uncle toms’ for knowing how to read. This film won’t do anything to change that. I saw the poster of this, with all the people running and thought it was a zombie film.

  2. ROFL at the final statement. Why the need to put that in there, I don’t know. But it’s hilarious for some reason.

  3. YUNGJUDAH says:

    Nice read I will be going to see this film I can’t wait. To all ppl who classify themselves as white turn away from your racist ways or God will destroy you for what you’ve done to his children.

  4. Ligaya says:

    Thanks, Kris. I’ve always found your commentary to be fair (which isn’t the same as making 2 sides of an issue equivalent, e.g. climate deniers & 90+% of scientists), astute & well-thought out. People can have their personal preferences, but it doesn’t have to be EITHER Birth of a Nation OR Loving. For me it’s BOTH/AND. Looking forward to seeing both.

  5. Mirriam Wade says:

    Ugh… I watched this and it’s extremely ham-fisted. If you’re judging the movie purely on writing, filmmaking and acting… it’s pretty damned mediocre. But it’ll probably win a ton of awards because it’s just timely, and reflects cultural issues in the news today. Shame for all the other films that are and will be better written, directed and acted this year. Oh well, sometimes that happens.

  6. Stop lying says:

    Ferguson is a lie. The whole thing is built on a lies. Never had his hands up.

  7. Ken says:

    Think I’ll be catching “Loving” instead — it has a much more potent trailer.

  8. IT--II--IT says:

    RED CHINA handover TREASON was PULLED OFF without a single hitch.

    AMERICA and the WORLD are clearly being PULLED.

    And the 100% INTEL RUN Hollywood franchise slum on hand with still
    more destabilization op ‘reality creation’.

    STEP AROUND !

    STEP AROUND ! – — ——in this, the 11th HOUR of TREASON.

  9. Iván el Conquistador says:

    12 Years a Slave won because critics and Academy didn’t want to be labelled as “racists”. Isn’t it enough for black people?
    Besides, why would a movie set in slavery times be a reflection of our era?

  10. joe says:

    It;s timely in the sense that racism among liberals has been growing and as a result of their belief that black people are inferior they hand out token awards

  11. Chris L. says:

    Very aptly put, Kris. I’ve read differing takes on the film’s degree of achievement, but clearly it calls out to be seen and discussed long after this award season. (Just the choice of title is audacious enough to inspire heavy contemplation of our history, on and off-screen.)

    Judging by most reactions to our President’s measured, searching pleas for empathy, our society seems to be up against a wall. Few people want to cast off the blinders and spend even a few minutes in the other guy’s shoes. (Lotta mixed metaphors there, but you get the idea.) Not that one expects compassion in this or most comment sections, but even on the more polite TV talk shows they were calling the speech a “lecture.” That’s not how I interpreted it. More like he was trying to stretch his rhetoric wide enough to embrace everyone, but the gulf only grew as he spoke. Distressing.

    So if Obama couldn’t, I don’t know if Nate Parker is capable of steering things toward understanding or not. If the film lands multiple nominations, the gripes will be that it’s only a make-up for previous snubs. And the wheel goes round. Movies can do only so much.

  12. Rudy Mario says:

    Ues. All injustices must be addressed with civility, discussions, and negotiations. Racist cops must be brought to justice.

    Equally critical for black folks who are an integral part of US society to face up to and address the internal challenges they face as a community. Foe example – why are the majority of black neighborhoods so crime ridden? Why is back on black violence through the roof compared to all other racial groups (exception being moslems but they are an alleged peaceful religious group). Why do blacks think they will all be basket ball stars or rappers and make a ton of money when that is not going to happen to all blacks ? Why such disregard for education ? Why such high dropout rates from schools? Why such high drug addiction rates compared to other groups?

    You can not keep blaming “the man” for everything, all the time.

  13. Good Luck says:

    So now the movies can justify the slaughter of five police officers in Dallas, who were protecting a black lives matter protest. Just how sick has this country become? The race hustlers are getting exactly what they want, blood running in the streets. The coming shit storm will be like no other one we’ve ever seen.

  14. auscon4 says:

    Another Op-Ed from a run amuck MSM with severe white guilt issues. As already has been mentioned within this comments section, there are more blacks falling at the hands of other blacks on a DAILY basis than the (still tragic and pathetic) events that have happened at the hands of the police in major cities across our country.
    I agree with the author that we need healing, but if the lame stream media continually, perpetually and constantly berates ALL of us with the diatribe that being white is almost a sin and that we need to “cow tow” to all other races just because whites simply can’t comprehend being anything else other than “white” along with the presumptive so-called privilege that accompanies it, then Dr. M.L. King’s magnificent statement: “We need to judge people not by the color of their skin but by the quality of their character” will be for NOTHING.
    But since that stroke of genius doesn’t meet the media’s prerequisite “if it doesn’t bleed it doesn’t lead” for air time mantra, this country will continue to fester with wounds that will never, ever heal.

  15. -from black writer Walter Williams:

    “Each year, roughly 7,000 blacks are murdered in America, and 94% the murder is another black person.” and don’t forget “According to a Tuskegee Institute study, between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 blacks were lynched at the hands of whites.”

  16. Ronnie says:

    The film will get a lot of attention because of the subject matter and initial buzz. But it will probably get overshadowed by the quieter film “Loving” about the interracial couple who changed the laws on marrying in this country. It will be considered the “safer” choice to support in awards season.

  17. AllWiledUp says:

    It will be interesting to see how historians approach this film. After (historically challenged) film critics killed off Free State of Jones, claiming (erroneously) it was a “white savior film”, leading Civil War historians have come to its defense, praising in particular the first realistic cinematic treatment of Reconstruction as it segued into Jim Crow.

    That was a film that was “timely” with its description of how freedmen were deprived of their rights, notably their voting rights. In this election year, nothing is more relevant. Slavery ended in 1865 (and Nat Turner was killed in 1830). Reconstruction never ended.

    • Slavery didn’t end in 1865, btw. It’s alive and kickin’ in Africa. And the middle east. Likely more places you don’t give a shit about.

    • It was timely but did not have the same sense of urgency this one does in the face of the zeitgeist. I liked “Free State of Jones,” actually, though it felt like a story that needed to be much longer. I’d have enjoyed it better as a miniseries.

  18. Chiptopia Cardholder says:

    Waiting for the Penn State rape scandal attached to the makers of Birth of a Nation to conveniently become a big deal sometime around Thanksgiving, leading to an eventual Oscars victory by the all-white cast of THE FOUNDER.

  19. Matt says:

    Gonna be interesting to see if Tapley and the rest of film media decide to do FSL’s dirty work and sweep the rape accusations against Parker and his convicted co-writer buddy under the rug. Hopefully journalistic integrity doesn’t succumb to the awards season machine.

    • He was acquitted. More interesting is, as you note, the presence of the gentleman who was convicted as a writer on the project. “Dirty work” is a bit dramatic, by the way.

      • Matt says:

        No it turns out “dirty work” was a perfectly apt description. This story is absolutely horrific and if Searchlight had bothered to do some research instead of impulse buying at Sundance they could’ve easily avoided this whole mess. You can still decide whether you want to be on the right or wrong side of history on this one Kris.

      • No, it wasn’t apt. It was and remains dramatic. As you can see by recent coverage, there was an intention at Variety to tackle this issue for quite some time.

        While we’re being dramatic, what “right side of history” is that? The one where I DON’T have a takeaway on a movie divorced from the artist? Got any opinions of Polanski movies you’d like to divulge, Matt? Johnny Depp movies?

      • AllWiledUp says:

        Parker’s screenwriter using his own name (and he was convicted of rape, Parker got off because he had previously had sexual relations with the girl they attacked) looks awfully like provocation. And the screenwriter got the same sentence the sleazebag at Stanford did. It’s very hard these days to have sympathy for spoiled brat college athletes (black and white – ask Kenneth Starr).

  20. jona says:

    What a steamy load of BS.Shouldn’t we be talking about Taylor Swift’s summer shoe style? Now THAT is timely.

  21. Heal the country…by guilt-tripping 77% of the American population, naming the film after a 1915 silent film no one even remembers, and taking the few horrible people of the country and making the other 90% be reminded of it. Sounds like childish generalization that couples well with the Academy’s ironic discrimination in balancing out the Academy, not keeping into account that a majority of the American population is white and a majority of the Academy’s population is American actors because, well, the Academy is the American version of nearly any other country’s award group. But we’re America…our job is to somehow accommodate everyone else in the world but they can keep treating us like we’re evil because we don’t help the entire world. Ah, newfound liberalism, bound in pity parties and dumb backward racism. Oh right, you can’t be racist to blacks right? Yeah that’s real equality. That’s when you know it’s only used as an excuse. I didn’t even know about that silent film until this moron director brought it up saying he “Reclaimed it to fight white supremacy” in America. Well we make up over 77% of the American population so it’s really not our fault on that one. But that would involve reason and common sense and not lashing out every five minutes. No wait! I’ll save the responses the time of calling me a racist because I don’t blindly support clear hypocrisy. Special treatment for the 13% of the population, a film that will undoubtedly portray Turner as a saint of a man and whites as evil and satanic. Did I leave anything out? To fight evil you must understand the greatest irony. Evil is not evil from those people’s perspective. They viewed the world the way they did because of the times and because of a mindset set forth by actions literally started 100’s of years before them. This is not justifying them but using actions 100’s of years old to attack mindset’s that are VERY different nowadays and, in the process, using that as an excuse to kill GOOD cops for no reason is not equality or justice. It’s pettiness and no one with any decent should be apart of it because it will lead you and everyone down a dark road where lines will be drawn and racial segregation will get worse subconsciously among us.

    • Faye says:

      How about being a responsible adult and just accepting that this is part of the countries history and dealing with it instead of acting self-righteous and calling it “guilt tripping”. Black people are allowed to talk about history too.All the rest you have to say comes off as paranoid.

      • My advice to you is simple. You want to have a conversation with someone, don’t start by talking down to them otherwise you will be treated the same.

      • Hey Faye you should easy up calling the kettle black there. LOL Well aware of the history of our country but I’m not taking responsibility for something I didn’t do. By your logic I should hold you accountable of for the sins of your father and ancestors. LOL Ignorant child. I have decades of movies that tell me about this part of history. Dismiss my words as paranoia. The childish response of course because you have no counter argument. No go play Pokemon Go with the other kids. You’re the only one who talks with their head up their ass. I just pulled it out for you. You’re welcome. :)

  22. Sexracist says:

    “Of course, it would be intellectually careless to equate the actions of Dallas shooter Micah Johnson with the retaliation of slaves against their oppressors.”

    But since Penske media is all about inflaming racial tensions, let’s go ahead and write a whole article about it anyway.

    • Pretty senseless and baseless comment. If you don’t think this column took a thoughtful approach to this subject, you have your own motivations I can’t speak to. In fact, how dishonest of you to cut the quoted graph off right where it suits your half-baked thesis.

      • turnitup says:

        I really appreciate the article, Kristopher. But you really take away from your own opinion by getting into it so uselessly with your own commenters. Comments sections are notorious for baseless hatred, and your deep interaction here indicates you’re more interested in everyone agreeing with you and loving your writing than you are confident in your own words and their strengths. At least it does to me. Are you a professional writer and journalist, or an affirmation-seeking blogger with a fancy title? You can’t be both.

      • I’ve been doing this 15 years. I always engage with the community, for better or worse. I don’t think doing so takes away from anything. I’m happy to speak to any commentary, misguided or otherwise, that pops up in my comments section. And I certainly am not seeking affirmation. That doesn’t mean I’ll let dubious assertions slide when they pop up in response to something I’ve written.

      • Sexracist says:

        My point is that you are intellectually careless.

        Perhaps you do not appreciate that praising a film about violent retribution as bold and provocative, and then directly linking it to real life events like the ones last week, conflates the estimation of the two subjects, despite trying to cover your ass with weak disingenuous protests to the contrary. You tacitly offer empathy to a mass murderer by suggesting his actions are fuelled by righteousness.

        And perhaps you don’t appreciate how your publication uses this inflammatory approach pushing a clear and obvious diversity agenda on a daily basis. Variety is in the business of agitating and exploiting racial tensions because it drives readership and therefore profits.

        And perhaps this is not what you intended when you attempted to present a “thoughtful” commentary, but sometimes the real points come out between the lines in ways the author does not explicitly state. I guess it’s too much to expect some self-awareness from a hack who exploits movie awards for a living.

      • You don’t appear to be a very deep thinker. To disregard the connected emotions behind the two flashpoints would be disingenuous. I know this. Mr. Parker knows this. I think underneath it all you probably know this, too.

        You also don’t appear to have a clear handle on what Variety’s business is, and certainly not mine. This film has a distinct and striking place in the zeitgeist and our job is to speak to that and contextualize it. To assuage your paranoia, I assure you there are no mandatory, Tuesday morning, “who has an inflammatory racial angle” meetings in our newsroom.

        “Between the lines” and your final insult say everything there is to say here as it pertains to your takeaway. You read what you wanted to read. That’s your prerogative I suppose. Though allow me to read between your lines. I’m tempted to ask what exactly is inherently bad about what you call a “diversity agenda.” Are you seething at the gall of covering and dissecting these matters because you harbor feelings of anti-equality? Or are you so dishonest as to think that a journalistic outlet should avoid a topic that is patently in the socio-political ether?

        Come what may, good for you for finding an outlet for your bizarre anger this week.

      • Sexracist says:

        “There is shared DNA between the emotions that sparked the two events.”

        You mean I cut you off right before you proved my point?

      • Do you disagree with that sentiment? Mr. Parker did not. Feel free to elaborate if you have an actual point to make.

  23. cadavra says:

    I would disagree with your headline. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? came out right in the middle of the riots that ensued in the wake of the bigoted reactions to the Civil Rights legislation passed by LBJ. The fact that the ceremony the following March had to be postponed two days because of the assassination of Dr. King just made everything more remarkable. (They won five and two Oscars, respectively, with HEAT taking Best Picture.)

    • Fair, but this particular convergence of specific flashpoints is frankly more striking to me.

      • Well said Nancy. I hope you see this. We have forgotten the past and only knitpick what will support our beliefs in this day and age. But the world has gotten better. Little at a time. You just need to look outside of what the media says who make it worse to make sure their ratings stay on. I don’t trust big-time “journalists” anymore. It’s not about truth, it’s about what keeps the numbers up.

      • Kris I’m going to share with you something. Bad crap happens A LOT in the world. Like every day of every week. People die, people treat each other like crap. But that is zooming in on a small part of this magnificent world and blowing it up. DId you know, and I just found this out, a majority of violence against blacks…is from other blacks!!! Can you believe that?! I have a rule when it comes to equality, true equality. Get yourself in order before you judge others. Yes, those cops were wrong and it was horrible! It was monstrous! I would break every one of their bones and force them to live in prison alive, unable to move, for the rest of their lives. Is that wrong to thing so cruelly? Maybe, but I also believe “eye for an eye” would keep others from doing such wrong. But also, and I hate to be that guy, but the media does like to blow crap up, make it appear as an infliction of horror, a disease of hate is spreading across the land every day. That’s propaganda and fear mongering. It’s no different than when Obama speaks such kind words on it but when good men of the law die he says nothing or lights the white house up like he does for the Orlando victims or Paris. Most people are very good, will stand up for what’s right. This film, to me, is nothing special. I’ll see it and I’m sure it will be a good film, but I know “Right time, right place” promotion when I see it as well. This film was made by a guy who actually thinks white supremacy is a thing. We’re 77% of the country! We can’t really help that! That is also fear mongering. I don’t approve of fear and it’s sad Donald Trump makes the most true statement that “Racial tension is dividing us.” Donald Trump said that! That was the most restrained thing I’ve heard from anyone on this matter whereas everyone else wants blood! No thanks.

  24. Nick Smith says:

    I saw this film at Sundance and I admired it. But, I cannot agree with the support it is receiving as some kind of saviour to the racial tension we are seeing sweeping our country. We should be trying all in our power to move away from the despicable acts portrayed so vividly in the film. We, as a country, should be pulling together. We can never forget the past and so we shouldn’t, but history is history and we need to look to the future and move on. Live together and break bread together. It is the only way we will survive in this strange and turbulent world… nsx

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