Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman does a lot of challenging things right. Like Marvel’s The Avengers, this DC Comics film has to accommodate almost too many elements, and yet, surprisingly, holds them fairly well in balance. There are viewer expectations of every stripe from devoted readers of the comics to overly sensitive sociopolitical critics ready to pounce on any part of the film they deem disappointing or questionable. There are the challenges of place—the ”real world” of WWI and the fantasy world of Themyscira (home of the Amazons) and how to believably integrate movement between the two.

Then there is Wonder Woman herself, upon whom hangs the history of the television series, the respected history of her character, and the outsized expectations of the first modern female superhero that go with her–all the girl-power hopes on one hand and the financial hopes of the film’s producers on the other. Of course there are the issues of how she’s going to be dressed and presented; will this just be another example of female exploitation and a sell-out to the male gaze? How will she relate to men? How far back into our heads might we be required to roll our eyes?

Certainly the film has proved popular and financially successful. I’ll leave it to others to happily write away as to why, and everything its success says about our times and culture. I’m just going to focus on the film itself.

The film takes on just about the right amount of story. Yes, it’s an origin story, but it doesn’t get lost in either the history or the details of the Amazons and too much of the life of Diana (WW). The “real world” intrudes at just about the right time and is as surprising and negative to the viewer as to the Amazons. For someone not in love with characters who inhabit fantasy universes (like myself), the world of the Amazons demands a rather large suspension of disbelief, perhaps more than the usual. But the world is clearly explained and explored, and we’re on our merry way rather quickly. It was a little disconcerting to find Claire Underwood wearing her warrior armor on the outside, but (double spoiler alert) it was refreshing to see her sacrificing herself as opposed to killing someone.

Once placed in the midst of the war, the film spends a good and enjoyable amount of time exploring Diana’s wide-eyed discovery of the world outside of her island paradise. The fish-out-of-water trope doesn’t get old when it’s done well, and here it’s handled with humor, and later, with increasing seriousness that occasionally brings the film into a strong anti-war mode. The fantasy/real world tension gets stretched almost to the breaking point in the challenges Diana and others need to address to keep the Germans from winning; the combination of tragic historical events and people with the more fantastic elements of otherworld weaponry doesn’t always make for the smoothest combination. But on the other hand, it opens the door to Wonder Woman’s powers.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman/Diana is a real find. Of course she is the requisite stunning beauty, but there is strength and great intelligence behind those eyes. Without playing dumb for a second, she brings a charming naïveté to her new experiences that allows the viewer to enjoy her discoveries with her. As every superhero is these days, she is incredibly strong when she enters the fray and has a confidence more like the self-sacrificing Captain America than the egotistical cockiness of Iron Man. It’s easy to believe in her.

And that costume. I can’t imagine the discussions that must have taken place and the many considerations that were tossed around. Bottom line: It quite clearly shows a lovely young woman who is in great physical condition, but it demonstrates strength and power rather than sexiness. It’s not cheesy, and it’s not skimpy. It doesn’t even look like a compromise.

Chris Pine plays the love interest, and it is among his better performances. His character’s connection with Diana is cute, charming, tough, romantic, and at all times credible. After the film presents his bravery and warrior skills, the film flips the usual script by making him the object of Diana’s gaze, something mildly and amusingly subversive. Pine is asked to do a lot in the film, from playing action hero to romantic hero to comedy to having to spout near-cliché lines about war that he actually pulls off. He’s clearly found this character, and he acts based on having that locked down.

Of course the other real star of the film is director is director Patty Jenkins, whose previous non-TV film was 2003’s Monster, which won Charlize Theron her Oscar. Other than having a strong central heroine at the center, these films couldn’t be any more different from one another in tone, place, and subject matter. In that earlier film, darkness and edge reigned. Here, Jenkins presents a film where the characters are believable, even within the fantasy context, and the story moves forward so deftly and quickly that we accept what we see. It’s more of a feat than is often acknowledged to have characters from two different worlds or universes enter a storyline that is essentially ridiculous, and yet make the viewer accept it all. Of course there is a suspension of disbelief in any comic book tale put on screen, but creating a world on screen that contains all these characters and actions plausibly is a directorial feat.

As has been noted by others, the first half is stronger than the second, and the CGI-ridden mega-showdown at the end is played out much too long. It plays not into the film that has preceded it as much as the regrettable tradition of Marvel and DC Comics on screen that demand a monstrous display of destruction in the last half-hour. It makes the film too long, and here, and the villain is less than convincing and definitely less than frightening. It’s a serious disappointment and a missed opportunity, but it doesn’t ruin the film.

Obviously, work has already begun on the sequel. Having succeeded in so many ways on the first outing, and having conquered quite a few artistic battles here, we can only hope that the creativity demonstrated here isn’t simply repeated, but is allowed to continue with fresh approaches to the characters and action.

 

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Alien: Covenant

A mini-review….

This film has beautiful production design, excellent cinematography, and a star-making performance by Michael Fassbender (who is already a star).

On the other hand, there’s nothing new here. After wandering far afield of the Alien myth with 2012’s Prometheus, director Ridley Scott returns to the gory monsters, bursting chests (or in this case, backs, a wild and crazy variation on the original—yes, that’s sarcasm), and startling scary moments of the first Alien film.

The film opens with a self-consciously stark and stunning setting that pulls the viewer away from the action and tension. The artificial beauty continues throughout, often dominating the storyline and enervating the suspense. There’s even a shower scene that is so stylized that I thought I was watching a bad ‘80s cable show.

There is something of a Sigourney Weaver/Ripley character found in Katherine Waterston’s character, but she is given too little to do too late for us to place her in our hearts and minds as the new Ripley.

And the end–oy! Not satisfying on any level, as it is both disappointing in terms of plot and comes off as a patently obvious set-up for a sequel.

Yes, Ridley, it’s beautiful, and yes, you went too far off the reservation with Prometheus. But simply creating a modern, stylized-but-still-gory version of your 1979 classic isn’t enough. You’ll lose a good deal by not seeing it on the big screen, but this is ultimately a gorgeous rental.

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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

This improbably entitled film is the great epic of the Michael Powell—Emeric Pressburger canon. The directors’ Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes might be wilder and even more stunningly beautiful, but The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is fascinating on a number of levels.

Simply as a film, it’s long and ambitious, but seems neither. It’s just under three hours long, and covers three wars, from the Boer War through WWI to the middle of WWII. Yet it’s a personal story, largely that of the just as improbably named General Clive-Wynne Candy, played by the nearly forgotten Roger Livesey (A Matter of Life and Death and “I Know Where I’m Going!”). Clive is first seen as a rotund, harrumphing military man whose great wartimes experiences have made him both valuable and obsolete. We are then thrown back in time to see him as a handsome, energetic war hero in the early years of the 20th century. Without giving away too much of the plot, Clive becomes an unlikely friend with a young German officer (Powell-Pressburger regular Anton Walbrook), who maintains an up-and-down friendship with Clive right up into the present (1943). He, like Clive, has an endearingly borderline-ludicrous name: Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff.

Apparently Winston Churchill did all he could to prevent this film from being made and then from being shown, as it presented a view of older British military men that Churchill deemed unpatriotic. The fact that the plot leans heavily on the friendship with a friendly German didn’t help, nor did the fact that the older Clive could easily be read as a Churchill stand-in. Churchill went so far as to make sure that the directors first choice for lead—Laurence Olivier—couldn’t be made available for the film. Hence Livesey, and the role of his career.

The film presents three distinct eras, but unlike some other larger-than-life films covering a significant chunk of history, this one stays close to the central personal story and doesn’t step back so far as to threaten the flow of the story. We’re with Clive all the way, and like the earlier Gone with the Wind, which this film resembles in much of its imagery, one feels as if one has lived through the battles of war without ever really experiencing one.

Powell and Pressburger were just beginning to experiment with the softer approach to Technicolor that blossomed so magnificently in the next few years, especially under the cinematic eye of the legendary Jack Cardiff. Georges Perinal, who’d won an Oscar for his cinematography for 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad (co-directed by Powell), was the official cinematographer for this film. But working for him as camera operators were two future greats: Jack Cardiff (who won Best Cinematography for Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) and should have won for the next year’s The Red Shoes); and Geoffrey Unsworth, Oscar-winner in the same category for Cabaret and Tess, among other great work. The film has inventive effects and some lovely, evocative camerawork, making the images an exciting alternative to those of other films of its time. One of its greatest successes is keeping a style that takes us from past to then-present in a way that brought the past to life and gave the then-present a classical aura.

Some of the most stunning images belong to the young Deborah Kerr, making her debut as a leading actress, in three parts no less. She features in all three timeframes, twice as the romantic lead. Those of us who mostly know her from her work in the 1950s (The King and I, Tea and Sympathy) may not know her soft beauty as a very young lady, or the impressive range of her acting, which takes quite a turn into the modern in the last segment.

This is also a great film for discussion in the “what might have been” category. What kind of film would it have been if the directors had had their way, and Olivier had played the lead? My own guess is that it would have been quite a different film, but not necessarily a better one. Olivier is quite the individualist on screen, and his presence is often electric and his energy centripetal. As in all his leads, he would have had trouble blending into the rest of the film, even one as strong as this. Livesey completely rises to the challenge of the part, but is more of a piece with the whole work than Olivier would have been. This film, with its lead, also gives us a chance to see what filmgoers are missing if they don’t know Livesey’s work. He’s very British, and is [fill in the blank] in a very British way that might not have engaged the American mind and heart back then. But looking back from our present time, I think that his solid, authentic, salt-of-the-earth leader works well with the films in which he stars.

This film also provides another look at Anton Walbrook, whom some may know only for his work in The Red Shoes, where he plays a rather ruthless, controlling and conflicted impresario. His German military man here, like Clive, goes from young and brash to older and wiser. In this case, he’s much wiser than his British friend, (spoiler alert) who can’t adjust to the demands of the new (read Nazi) warfare, and who is stuck in the past, believing that right (alone) is might and that 19th century roles are just fine, thank you veddy much.

When we think of epics, we think of Lawrence of Arabia (which this film resembles in several ways), The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, or even the French Les Enfants du Paradis. All of these are serious dramas. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is somewhat different. In some ways, it’s straightforward drama at times. Yet in other scenes, the flavor is pure satire with the lightest touch possible, a high-wire act few films have ever pulled off. If you enjoy exploring the work of two great directors, like Deborah Kerr, enjoy war movies, appreciate good acting, or just like experiencing good cinema, this restored masterpiece is well worth the time.

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Denial (2016)

One of the great disappointments in the art of film occurs when a great story, or even an important and engaging one, becomes a film that is just “fine.” If the film were a dud, there might be the chance that a good film would ultimately be made of the topic. If a great film were made out of a great story, that’s a double success. But when a great story becomes an OK film, that’s a great story trapped. Such is the case with Denial, a well-made, dramatic story on Holocaust denial that lacks the necessary passion its elements and storyline demand.

Denial has all the necessary ingredients for greatness, or for at least being better than it is. The director is Mick Jackson, who did a fine job with HBO’s Temple Grandin and has a string of successful television work. The script is by David Hare (The Reader and The Hours). Even stronger is the cast: the inestimable and radiant Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott (unforgettable as Moriarty on the BBC Sherlock series), Mark Gatiss, co-creator of that same series as well as the actor who plays Mycroft Holmes on the same series), and Will Attenborough, grandson of legendary Richard.

The plot involves a lawsuit from a British Holocaust denier (Spall) against an American professor and writer (Weisz) who is accused of libel because she has publicly called him out on the denial. That’s the plot. The story, however, is full of great possibilities but unexplored resonances. This is a story about truth, about perception, about history, about the British legal system, about the differences between America and American ways and Britain and British ways. It’s about an occasionally obnoxious but sympathetic New Yorker (spoiler alert) who must, frustratingly, keep her mouth shut during a trial that seems backwards to her. So many buried subtopics; so few actually excavated.

The tone is cool and surprisingly unemotional, considering the topics the story addresses. There are a few moments that bring the tragic historical events to near-life, and there is the occasional satisfying clash among the two legal counsels (Wilkinson and Scott) and their barely containable client (Weisz). But the spark, the angst, the fiery anger—they’re all missing.

Perhaps it’s because the director has a TV background that doesn’t translate well to feature films. Or perhaps he is simply more workmanlike than expressive. One important element that keeps things less interesting than questioning is the lead casting. I love Rachel Weisz, and she is almost always better than her material, even if the material is great. But this British actress, in spite of her good work with the American/New Yawk accent, is still one of the Brits acting on that screen. Why not cast an American and let the nationalist tensions be more obvious? Yes, it’s a BBC production, but it seems a lost opportunity, which is hard to say when one is speaking of Ms. Weisz.

Here’s a thought: This film seemed to work well for the British, who nominated it for Outstanding Film of the Year. Over here it made peanuts. Let’s forget this was made, and why doesn’t some passionate director try it again (perhaps making more of the fish-out-of-water elements, and allowing the American to be played by an American, or at least not a British legend), draw more life out of the many plot points and tensions, subtly highlight the important philosophical suggestions to get many an energetic conversation started, and make it into the rip-roaring drama it was meant to be.

In the meantime, it’s still worth seeing. As I said—a great story….

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A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946)

I took another trip to the 1940s, and to England, and to something like heaven. But really, I was taking another trip to the land of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (see reviews of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes), who created some of the most intelligent, beautifully photographed and intriguing films of the 1940s. (Next up: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.)

It’s hard to describe A Matter of Life and Death (retitled Stairway to Heaven for release in the US, where distributors didn’t think that a title with “death” in it would work for a post-WWII audience). It’s got bits of It’s a Wonderful Life (released at nearly the same moment in 1946), the British Things to Come from 1936, a soupçon of The Seventh Seal (which wouldn’t be made for another 11 years) and a variety of medical and war dramas. There’s not another film I can compare it to, except in appearance, and even then only in the color sections.

Even the plot is unusual: a British pilot, Peter Carter, is about to crash and die, and has a last-moments conversation with a young American servicewoman on the radio. In a way that could only happen in movies, they “fall in love” in the few moments they have together. But then something goes wrong, or right, or something. There is a mix-up “up there” and he accidentally lives. The pilot, played by David Niven in his most romantic phase, is visited by something like the angel that made the mistake, and finally forces a kind of trial to allow him to keep on living and continuing the love relationship he’s developed with the young American woman.

The film is a wonder to look at. Jack Cardiff, the legendary cinematographer of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, has created another Technicolor masterpiece with heartbreakingly beautiful images. He also did a color reversal of what was done in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. In this film, earth is in Technicolor, and “up there” is in lustrous black-and-white, created by filming in Technicolor originally and then developing the film to keep the colors out. For those only used to the Hollywood version of Technicolor, what the British do with it—especially Cardiff—is a revelation.

There are also unusual special effects—especially involving freezing the action—that are commonplace now, but were revolutionary then.

There are surprising directions taken by the plot. We get to know what we’d call “heaven,” a rather cool and austere place that is both futuristic and classical in look. (The woman who greets the new arrivals is played by Kathleen Byron, who tore up the screen the next year as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus. Also, look for future Oscar-winning director Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) in a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it role as a pilot.) What goes on up there bears little relation to what any particular religion actually believes about the afterlife, and the film makes the point that all that activity may just be in Peter’s damaged brain. (If you demand clear and final answers in films, avoid this one.) Then the film ends with a trial that somehow becomes something of a showdown between the British and the Americans, with Britain not always the winner. That set-up is anticipated by the arrival of a crew of Americans, who seem to embody the British criticisms of American GI’s as “oversexed, overpaid, and over here.” Watching the various nationalities react—or fail to react—during the trial is a delight.

Two performances other than the solid work of Niven stand out, and for different reasons. Peter’s “angel,” called the Conductor, is played with a near-perfect French accent by Marius Goring, who wanted the role of Peter but was willing to accept this secondary one. Goring plays it just this side of fey, but it’s an intelligent and humorous performance that provides the lightness necessary to balance Peter’s character and predicament.

The other unexpected performance is from an unexpected actress. The female lead is none other than Kim Stanley, just a year away from her role on stage as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, and five years before her Oscar-winning performance in the film version. Apparently Alfred Hitchcock recommended her to Powell based on her work feeding lines and cues to actors trying out for that director’s Notorious (1946). Powell and Pressburger wanted an all-American-looking girl, and she fits the fill. She also has dark hair, a big change for those who only know her as the blonde Stella. Here she is young and fresh and sweet, a far cry from her down-to-earth and slightly world-weary Streetcar character. She is listed quite late in the opening credits, but she carries a great deal of the film, and gets a more accurate credit at the end.

Canadian actor (really, Canadian—who knew?) Raymond Massey has an increasingly important role in the film, and shows early signs of becoming one of those actors who led with his voice and style of declamation rather than his acting abilities. But in contrast, we get a solid Roger Livesey, one of Powell and Pressburger’s favorite actors (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going)

It’s easy to say that there is no other film quite like A Matter of Life and Death. J.K. Rowling and actor Michael Sheen apparently count it as their favorite film, and in 2004 it was voted the second best British film made by a British film magazine. It’s a treat for those interested in the British-American “special relationship,” lovers of romantic war films, anyone that wants an early look at Kim Hunter, those interested in cinematographic beauty and special effects, and any film person caught by the resurgence of interest in these two writer/director/producers, who richly deserve the renewed attention.

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

The second installment of the Guardians series is nearly critic-proof. At this point, the franchise has a life of its own, and is successful enough at entertaining that snipes are harmless to the films and serious analysis is nearly pointless. Truth be told, Vol. 2 holds together—barely, but it finally does. It’s less a sequel than the second installment, with some emphasis on “stall.” It’s at least the middle of three films, and as other space franchises have shown, could be the second of many.

Nothing, nothing can replace the freshness of the first, which was, with lead Chris Pratt, the main reason for the first film’s success. Few expected that a film focusing on minor players in the Marvel universe could produce such a success. But the utter insouciance of the plot, the film’s attitude, and the main players was so unexpected–so different from the seriousness of the other Marvel entries, and so much silly fun—that it made for such a refreshingly enjoyable film that became the top box office film of 2014.

The first film flowed, and created a new world that was both down to earth (Pratt) and otherworldly (Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, and Vin Diesel’s Groot). This one feels assembled, as if they pulled out the bits and pieces that apparently made for success, and then stitched them together. All the elements are there; the flow is gone. There are the same snarky jokes and similar action sequences, but the film feels bumpy.

There is a definite story to this one, but it tends to tear at the fabric of the action world the first film created. The father issues that Peter/Star-Lord struggled with are brought to the surface with a vengeance, and then those issues take over the film. That and the script’s tendency to separate our central characters into subgroups both tend to rob the film of the energy and dynamic created by the group when they are together—either arguing and threatened to be pulled apart, or when they pull together to accomplish a task. [Spoiler alert] Kurt Russell as Ego is the perfect choice to play Peter’s father, but casting such a strong presence in that role fairly demands that the paternal subplot become the plot, and that happens to the film’s detriment.

As many have noted, the family theme extends to Gamora and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The push-and-pull of that relationship seems to promise a bit more than it delivers, and it appears that any real resolution (either way) is being pushed to the next film.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the film is the level of violence, and the amount of it. It seems as if every battle, large or small, has to be a set piece of some kind, and the balance between violence and humor is often awkward and uncomfortable. These action scenes seem less of a piece with the film itself, and more like standalone battles that wear out their welcome quickly.

The true strength of these films, of course, is this group of characters, not so much what they are tasked with. Rocket is still there with his sharp humor, and it seems that the filmmakers have learned to trust Dave Bautista as Dax with more lines and a greater role in the plotline. He’s much less the strong and silent type here, but it appears that the filmmakers haven’t quite nailed down what his character should be. He’s as funny as in the first film, but is used in more ways in this second one, some of which work and some of which don’t.

The film goes quite sentimental at times, and gets downright squishy at the end. But in the middle of all that not-always-earned emotion is Baby Groot, perhaps the most adorable character since Olaf in Frozen. He couldn’t possibly be any cuter, and if the end-credit previews are any indication, we will lose him to Adolescent Groot in the next film. That should have its own teenage brand of humor surrounding the character, but I will miss this little bugger. He is also more expressive here, with “I am Groot” apparently meaning more words and thoughts than we ever knew.

Then there is the one thing that holds everything together, and for which the film’s producers must give thanks every day—and that’s Chris Pratt. Looking at The Hunger Games films in contrast (and I’m sure I’m in the minority here), the greatly talented Jennifer Lawrence never quite seemed a good fit as Katniss, and as a member of the world of the film. In the Guardian films, Pratt is a near-perfect fit. He’s ruggedly handsome, and fulfills that Clark Gable popularity description—men wanted to either be him or hang out with him, and women wanted to be with him. Pratt is more of a comic figure than Gable, of course, but his shoulders carry these films with ease. He effortlessly handles both action and comedy, especially the singular brand of humor belonging to these films.

Pratt’s acting chops are still undetermined, however, and his work in Passengers didn’t stretch him too much. I noticed that the scenes in Vol. 2 where he might have gone deeply emotional, even into tears, showed him from a distance and more from the back than the front. (Perhaps he can’t do believable tears yet, or the filmmakers didn’t want Star-Lord to show that much naked emotion.) However, when I apply the “What other actor could do this?” test to the character of Peter Quill, I come up short. He’s in the Robert Downey, Jr./Iron Man and Tom Hiddleston/Loki category. It’s impossible to imagine someone else doing this, or doing this as well.

Peter’s relationship with Gamora was a great and growing tease of the first film, and the second gives us a nod to the romantic tension there. The best part of that story is the “empath” that can read emotion’s, including Peter’s for Gamora. But this is the part where the “stall” in installment comes in, as any serious development of the relationship is pushed to the end of the film, and then put in place rather quickly and thinly. We’re going to have to wait a few years for a satisfactory conclusion to that romance.

In short, Vol. 2 contains enough of the successful elements of the first film to be fun, if not fresh. It’s to be hoped that the demands for various layers of resolution in the next film will provide more coherence for its action, humor, characters and those characters’ challenges.

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The Birth of a Nation (2016)

The Birth of a Nation was the biggest film non-happening of 2016. This was the film that was bought at Sundance for $17.5 million. It was thought it was going to be one of the critical hits of the year, and folks were talking up which categories would snag Oscar nominations. It was also the big coming out party for director/writer/star Nate Parker, whom most filmgoers would have recognized as having smaller acting roles in The Secret Life of Bees and Red Tails, if they knew of him at all. He was to be the Next Big Thing.

Then his college day problems either caught up with him, or derailed him, depending on how you view it. Parker and his co-writer/former roommate Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of rape years ago. Parker was tried and acquitted. Celestin was tried and convicted, but the conviction was turned over on appeal. All the general public knows is that Parker said the sex occurred, but was consensual.

In any event, the digging up of Parker’s past doomed the film. (Domestic box office was less than $16 million.) Of course, this raises a boatload of questions that have nothing to do with the film. For example, aren’t we presumed innocent until proven guilty, or does only apply to crimes not having to do with sex? If the law found the two not guilty, how can we presume to find them guilty? It’s easy to jump on the “I hate sexual violence” bandwagon (and who isn’t on that bandwagon?). But how can we assume to know what happened years ago? For some people, what happened years ago changes everything about the film; for others, it doesn’t affect how they view the film at all. Complicating all of this is the suicide of the girl involved a few years ago. That’s a tragedy, no matter what did or didn’t happen. If sexual violence occurred, then we can likely assume (though we can never really know) that it could have been a key factor in her untimely death. In any event, the whole episode tainted the film, and everyone’s investment in it went belly up.

One can’t even escape into viewing the film itself without the history of its main contributors. A central plot point, made a motivating event for understanding one of the most complex anti-slavery acts in American history, is the rape of Nat Turner’s wife by white men. Though there is some limited evidence that Turner had a wife, if he did, there is no evidence that she was raped, or that any sexual assault was one of the big motivating factor in Turner’s rebellion. For those who believe that Parker and Celestin were guilty, it’s the highest of ironies that they would have their central film character here be motivated by revenge for a rape.

Other concerns around the film, but not touching the film itself, is how it would have performed if Parker and Celestin had never had that past, or if that information had never come out. It’s all speculation, of course, but there are strong opinions on both sides. I personally tend to think it would have certainly performed better than it has, but I don’t think it would have been the hit the distributors were hoping for.

And speaking of the film’s context (he wrote, wiping his brow…), one has to place it, at least for a moment, in the context the film’s creators intended. The film has the same name as America’s first great cinematic masterpiece, the brilliant, breathtakingly racist classic, The Birth of a Nation, released in early 1915, and directed by D.W. Griffith. Some teachers of American film have shied away from showing the film in recent years because of its racism. When I was teaching American Film, I insisted on showing it for the same reasons; it needs to be seen, talked about, thought about, and faced. Parker’s film, in taking the same name for itself, is obviously trying to tip the scales back, or at least answer that film’s support for the Ku Klux Klan with his own story of Turner’s Rebellion. His film’s failure at the box office may well have doomed that effort, but time will ultimately tell.

Wading through all the baggage, I came to the film itself (finally!). As a first feature effort, it shows a talented newcomer who is confident in his filmmaking, if not yet assured. It’s a good-looking film, sometimes self-consciously so, which raises its own issues when the film’s plot turns dark and violent. (12 Years a Slave was also accused of the same visual romanticism, but its beauty was less obvious and more of a piece with the whole film.)

The film tries to be smooth, but is rather episodic in nature, featuring each significant act (whether negative, as a beating, or positive, as in courting and marrying) in a rather unconnected fashion. Since Parker apparently doesn’t want Turner’s violent acts to be the simple explosion of a man who couldn’t take it anymore, the requisite build-up to such an explosion is missing. The rebellion becomes, in essence, just another episode in a life filled with them. One could say that the sheer unfairness and violence at the heart of slavery should be enough to explain, if not justify, the violence. But Parker tries to weave in Turner’s spirituality, which was real and deeply felt. In fact, the scenes of Turner preaching, either with joyful abandon, distraction, or even deep conflict as he preached to his fellow slaves, are the highlight of the film. They are acted well, and contain none of the painful phoniness of most actors who try to act “religious” in films. I don’t know Parker’s current state of heart or belief, but he obviously has a background in real Christian spirituality, and he places its expressions well in terms of historical context.

What doesn’t work, and what may ultimately have been the reason for the film’s lack of success if Parker’s past hadn’t already accomplished it, is the turn toward violence. It’s not well established, nor well explained. Introducing—necessarily—the religious element turns the film from the “understandable reaction to all the evils of slavery” to something more than that, something other than that. But as much as the film takes us along on Turner’s ride as he matures, marries, preaches and begins to internalize the sheer evil of slavery, we suddenly find ourselves watching instead of connecting as he decides he has a divine mandate to kill a slew of white people. There are, according to history, a number of reasons that led to that conclusion, including his reading of certain scriptural passages, seeing of visions, and “signs” in the sky. But the film tends to lose the viewer here, and we are thrown into a series of acts that are as abhorrent as those we’ve seen earlier in the film.

Then the film whitewashes (pun not intended) the violence and ends by sanctifying Turner. Around 60 whites were killed in Turner’s Rebellion, including women and children. It’s true that Parker has kept his violence to a minimum in terms of what we see and how we see it throughout the film, so it’s consistent that he doesn’t make the viewer wallow in blood and death toward the end. But the horror of what Turner did is too lightly balanced against what we’ve seen so far. All of the cruelty and violence the film presents is unjust and cruel, but the film refuses to take that perspective—a greatly missed opportunity. Are we to take Turner’s violence as justified? It’s a great question for discussion, and the film leans in that direction. But since his motivations are not clearly presented, and the viewer is left on the side of the road on Turner’s journey to the slaughter, the film tends to obscure the issues rather than highlighting them.

The film veers even further from a clear-eyed view of Turner’s acts by crowning him with saintly glory at the end. One could easily have viewed Turner as a man driven to violence by the violence of the system in which he lived. Or he could have been presented as a precursor to John Brown, where a Bible-believing person went off the rails into error, if not mental instability. But the film’s elevation of Turner at the end weighs the film down to a personal history instead of elevating it to an examination of more complex issues, which Turner’s Rebellion contains in abundance. We don’t even get a “violence begets violence” perspective, but it’s indirectly suggested that Turner’s acts must be justified by what happened to and around him, since the film cinematically justifies him (and I use that term both theologically and in its ordinary definition).

Then there is the (sigh) general presentation of whites as bad and blacks as good. If that’s his statement in attempting to right the wrongs of the first Birth of a Nation, it’s understandable. But 100 years later, this comes across as just too binary, to use a current phrase. Yes, there are whites who aren’t presented as evil incarnate, and a few even have a positive trait or two. But again—a missed opportunity.

Only time will tell what will happen to this film. It may be “rediscovered” in a few years’ time, and who knows what will happen to Parker. After all, Hollywood has a short memory, and forgives—sometimes. If nothing else, the film is a major cinematic Rorschach test. If you do manage to see it, let me know what you see there….

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