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.”
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.”