BIRTH OF A NATION
I have never seen D. W. Griffith’s epic of the same title released a century ago or its companion Intolerance; it’s unlikely that other than as the inevitable lesson, I won’t go out of my way to see it. And if it means anything, Ava Duvernay’s scorching documentary 13th features ample footage from Griffith’s movie for me to feel repulsed by it. That this is how white people thought and felt about a race that their ancestors dragged in chains and against their will out of their African homes and condemned to a life of indignity that still pervades today is incomprehensible to me. I will never understand how this propagandist film would have ever received the adoration of the critics and thinkers of its time, but there it is, in black and white, its proclamation of an instant classic, or as someone said, “history written in lightning.”
Watching Parker’s version — a revolt from the opposite of the race barrier led by Nat Turner whom Parker plays — one has to come in with a little distance and an enormous sense of objectivity. While not a savagely violent as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, we do get scenes of African Americans being debased and humiliated in ways that McQueen’s movie never touched. Some of them are subtle — at one point, Turner witnesses a girl playing with her slave whom she is holding on a leash as if she were a dog; in another, he witnesses a slave unwilling to eat having his teeth pried out of his mouth by his master while another pushes food into his mouth. There is the brutal rape of Turner’s wife, done off-screen,. Then there is the subtlest of all, when early in the movie, Penelope Ann Miller, the Turner matriarch who takes pity on Nat Turner, informs the young boy he can’t read books that are out of his range, but instead gives him a Bible to read. It’s a cry of outrage if I have ever seen one, one that demands retribution.
Reader, you need not wait more, because there is the well-documented revolt, and when it comes, it’s nothing short of a coup de grace comparable to a simmering pot of boiling water exploding because it cant contain its pressure. Nate Parker may have condensed certain elements of Turner’s life to make a more dramatic point. but the essence remains: here is a man who, by reading the only book he was allowed to, moves from being someone not even sure why they landed here in the first place, submissive to a fault, to a leader of vertiginous power guided by voices and his own spiritual convictions. Parker doesn’t shy away from presenting Turner’s rebellion in its gruesome sense; it arrives at a point when we as an audience can’t bear it no more than he can — and he gets a plentiful of punishment by his former friend/master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer, in a somewhat underwritten role), who sells his soul to the promises most poor whites back then did: the promise that their status would be elevated as long as they didn’t interfere with slavery.
Almost 200 years have gone by since Turner’s rebellion in which he spared no one in order to make a point [History has him and his followers killing both the innocent and guilty alike.] That this created an even bigger wave of anti-black sentiment further explored as convict leasing, segregation, and the subsequent propagandist film of the same name, almost makes it sound as though next to no progress has been made. Parker’s Birth of a Nation tries to present not what white revisionists would like you to see but a close rendition of this nation’s dark and difficult role in creating slavery not just as a concept but a state of mind. Some may think Turner was too radical for his time; I believe radicals are sometimes the only chance anyone has if there is ever to be any change at all.
Something about Christine Chubbuck’s short life which led to her on-air suicide in a Sarasota news channel must be still demanding for more stories to be told. First there was Kate Plays Christine, a documentary-movie that depicted Kate Lyn Sheil doing her research for the role of Christine Chubbuck and seeing bits and pieces of her own self start to disintegrate as she got closer and closer to the dark black cloud that was Chubbuck’s own tragedy. Antonio Campos’ Christine presents a woman falling apart at the seams from the moment we first see her. In a moment that screams help early on in the film we see her approaching a young couple, and in what amounts to a short, unwelcome, and uncomfortable interview on the spot she can’t help but remark how much in love they seem. You see, Christine walks through life almost as though she was an alien in a foreign land. It’s the very unremarkable nature of her life that makes her progressive, internal collapse the more poignant. She can’t stand her mother seeing another man; she has no clue her own co-worker (Michael C. Hall) likes her and pushes him away, citing her work as an excuse. Clashes with her boss (Tracy Letts) are the topic of the day. Her search for news topics almost always amount to a failure to connect and communicate — even the way she interviews draws a picture of a woman not really trying to engage her guest as much as going through the motions, eyes perpetually downcast, voice hushed and measured. Her unraveling is only a matter of time, and it’s a shame that this is what Christine Chubbuck is known for: her final meltdown at the hands of a gun and little information as to what were the causes of her depression. Rebecca Hall may have found her breakthrough role after several years being little more than a decorative figure in film; she fully embodies a scream for help that just never gets the attention it needs, or at least, until it’s too late and she’s become another statistic.
Another woman who seems to be falling at the seams is the one — or many — that Rachel Weisz portrays in Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown. It’s a fitting title. Weisz plays Alice, a woman who it seems, may have been familiar with the works of Anais Nin — most notably, Spy in the House of Love. When she appears in the home of her former flame Tom ( Michael Shannon) who’s celebrating his birthday party, we wonder what her intentions may be. Snippets of conversation indicate they were an intense item at one point 15 years ago when she suddenly disappeared leaving no trace. Now she’s returned, a glamorous older woman with the gift of witty stories that completely win over everyone . . . but Tom. Tom is no fool; he instantly recognizes her and sees through her veneer. Later as they leave the premises with a couple of friends to continue to celebrate, Alice makes a crucial mistake in one of her many stories. This leaves Alice with no other choice but to give up the mask she’s been hiding in, and as she and Tom are left alone in the city, they initiate an epilogue of a relationship where the question of Alice’s behavior isn’t so much that she does what she does — change identities as often as she can and essentially move across the world in a constant state of a chameleon — but the why. This doesn’t come so much as clear, but it seems that Marston’s interest lies less in explaining a mystery inasmuch as showing it. Complete Unknown is bittersweet — both Weisz and Shannon fully make you believe they once had a Great Passion — but it’s too short of a psychodrama to even grant closure to something that wasn’t even reciprocal to begin with because the female half was absorbed in her own selfishness and the glamour of her wispy persona.