““THE BIRTH OF A NATION” ISN’T WORTH DEFENDING”

““Twelve Years” and, especially, “Django” promised to widen the expressive possibilities of the slave story — to add to the cultural meanings of the country’s gravest crime. Parker, though, works within a much narrower range. If Tarantino reimagined slave clichés along the lines of the spaghetti Western and the blaxploitation film, and McQueen redrew them in the lines of plein-air painting, Parker’s secondary influence is the contemporary superhero flick. In “The Birth of a Nation,” slavery is the setting for an elongated origin story, in which our hero, destined for greatness but restrained, for a time, by circumstance, emerges as a nearly supernatural force…
That word, “important” — along with its cousins “powerful” and “necessary” — had figured in the first reviews of the film. Even critics who expressed a slight ambivalence about the movie’s artistic merits had chased those worries away by reminding readers how important it was to have Nat Turner’s story finally presented on an epic scale. Given the chronic exclusion of blacks in entertainment, it’s easy to understand the prevailing critical view that a work of art by a black artist about the bleakest episode in our history must, on these grounds alone, be worthy of our attention. It is true that artistic reimaginings of historical events can prompt us to learn whatever lessons they may contain. Even a bad work of art like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” went some distance toward helping our country face the magnitude of its sins.
But “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was written, by a white woman, as unabashed propaganda. And if we are to judge “The Birth of a Nation” on these terms — as agitprop, however auteurist — it’s worth asking what greater good, exactly, it might achieve. As a Best Picture nominee, it would ever so slightly darken the Oscar proceedings — which, given the stubborn recurrence of killings of black men at the hands of police officers, is perhaps not the most pressing cause of our time. And it would have done so by bolstering Hollywood’s congenital elevation of flashy, often sexist mediocrities. There are talented black filmmakers making movies today — Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins, to name a few — whose work addresses urgent material via genuinely original means. We do them and ourselves a disservice by lowering our expectations, and extending undue credit to bad art…
Slavery in this country was never a hero’s journey. It is a ghost story, and Nat Turner is its poltergeist, dashing pottery against America’s walls.”

This was a gorgeous review.

Related: “I’m So Damn Tired of Slave Movies

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