Friday, October 14, 2016

Nosh 36: 'The Birth of a Nation' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Review ofThe Birth of a Nation’
It must have seemed like a bravura coup to writer and director Nate Parker: highjacking the title of D.W. Griffith’s fabled and infamous The Birth of a Nation. In 1915 Griffith boldly advanced a young art form and gave us our most potent vision of the Civil War era. But – his big, nostalgic blunder – he indulged his fantasy about the Ku Klux Klan as a Christian crusade of white knights, out to protect their damsels from black lust.

The movie was a huge success and was screened for years, not just in the South. It set the stage for David O. Selznick’s romantic magnolia binge, Gone With the Wind. A counterpoint rebuke, James W. Noble's The Birth of a Race (1918), gained little attention outside a few "colored" theaters. A movie  like Griffith’s cannot be made again, for which the verdict a century later is “thank God.” Parker, a black actor directing his first feature, has every right to select his own terms of racial payback. After all, the white author William Styron took the moldering facts about Nat Turner, who in 1831 led a bloody slave rebellion in Virginia, and wrote a controversial, Pulitzer Prize’d novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967).  Styron is now on a dusty shelf, Griffith is an easy target, and Turner is a martyred, partially mythic piece of history, still ripe for use.

Sadly that does not excuse Parker's liberation saga which, despite some glints of power, wraps history and myth, religion and revenge, inside a blubber ball of chunky clichés and clunky tactics. The whites are nearly all rustic brutes, though a pale plantation lady gives kid Nat a Bible and teaches him to read. Still, he’s sent back to sweat in the cotton fields for her son, a boozing hayseed and brooding cyst of guilt. Nat has a preacher gift, but takes quite some time to reckon that the whites are exploiting him to sedate slaves with religion (very little Jesus, mostly Old Testament). Periodic acts of sadism keep us involved before the blowout revolt, ordained not only because Nat is now a vengeful “prophet,” but because the plot pressure can only be vented in a grisly hallelujah of violence (almost 300 died).

As director, Parker favors glossy, picturesque vistas, walloping close-ups, and the facile branding of stick figures which Griffith was already trying to reach beyond in 1915. A central problem is his performance as Turner. Parker has warm eyes and a big, sunrise smile, but after so much suffering the effect of that charm starts to make Nat seem too simple, if not quite a servile Uncle Tom (speaking of which, Samuel L. Jackson’s Tom tactics as a cunning, two-faced mansion slave in Django Unchained had more layers of nuance than Parker ever manages). The performances are highly posed and often hackneyed, without the impact of Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and H.B. Walthall in Griffith’s silent picture. Parker uses rape to oil rage, and for tragedy invokes Strange Fruit, the powerful Billie Holiday song against lynching.

12 Years a Slave, a touch pedantic but richly dramatized, showed us vile plantation cruelties as well as any film has. Quentin Tarantino’s Django took the whole, lurid package to a new level of crafty melodrama. Parker’s Birth has been ambushed by news about his tainted sexual past (while in college he was accused, then acquitted of rape). Beyond that controversy, any serious look tells us the movie just isn’t very good.

SALAD (A List)
By my reckoning, The Ten Best Slave-themed Movies are: Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960), Amazing Grace (Apted, 2006), Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012), 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013), Burn! (Pontecorvo, 1969), Mandingo (Fleischer, 1975), The Ten Commandments (De Mille, 1956), Amistad (Spielberg, 1997), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Korty, 1974), Slaves (Biberman, 1969). Obviously, Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is in its own category, as both a great film and a history travesty.   

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
A strong Roosevelt liberal, Citizen Welles was urged to run for the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin against a paunchy young Republican “war hero,” Joseph R. McCarthy. The real problem, as he said later, was “Joe McCarthy had the dairy people behind him and there was no way to beat him.” Orson didn’t run, “and that’s how come there was a McCarthy. It’s a terrible thing to have on your conscience.” But 1946 was a big Republican year; it also gave us Richard M. Nixon. (From Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles: A Biography).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
No one is funnier in The Producers than Estelle Winwood, 84, prim but sparky and sex-minded as an old widow: “Mel Brooks recalled that ‘she poked Zero in unmentionable places.’ On hitting 100 she would sigh, ‘I wouldn’t mind being dead. It would be something new.’ Of The Producers she said, ‘I must have needed the money.” (From the Zero Mostel/The Producers chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Kindle, Nook and Amazon.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Henry B. Walthall charms Lillian Gish in The Birth of a Nation, 1915 (director D.W. Griffith; cinematographer Billy Bitzer).

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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