Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Look at 2016's Race Issues and "The Birth of a Nation"

Nate Parker
If one was to have a conversation eight months ago about what film would lead the Oscar race in 2016, many would say director Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation. It premiered at Sundance at a time where the film's record breaking sale felt like its own type of big racial statement. It was a time where The Academy was under fire for their "Oscars So White" problem, and here was a film about the black experience that could be held as, well, the token black film. Cut to eight months later, and the conversation has changed not only on the film's chances, but the director's own controversial past. With the film coming out this Friday, one must ask themselves: Is The Birth of a Nation going to stand any chance at the Oscars next year?

There is a lot to unpack when discussing The Birth of a Nation. The symbolism of taking back a title from one of the most arguably racist films in cinematic history is itself a profound statement for Parker to make. In February, it was one that was desperately needed among the Oscars So White controversy. There needed to be belief that a non-white film could come out swinging, putting the prestige dramas to task. Considering the way that advertising works, it's easy to see why this mattered in February. Cut to October, only days away from its release, and the whole picture looks very different.

For starters, The Birth of a Nation is no longer the only black film of the prestige season. It has to compete with, to name but a few: Moonlight, Loving, Fences, Moana, Lion, and Collateral Beauty. While The Birth of a Nation stands a better shot than a few of these titles, it no longer has the distinction of being the black film. Before I get into the bigger reason that the film may fail to achieve any trajectory, I will state that the film's narrative always felt a little disingenuous. While I still think that it could be good (I have not seen it), the idea of its Sundance success felt to me like an attempt to solve the Oscars' racial problems with an easy solution. As a result, it doesn't feel like it has Oscar potential. It feels like it's mostly in the conversation that it's the black film trying to capture the same audience that came out to see 12 Years a Slave

To be honest, I do think that it's wonderful that cinema is trying to discuss history with new perspectives. I definitely hold 12 Years a Slave as one of the current decade's greatest works. However, I do believe that the answer to diversity involves not only discussing the past, but the modern culture. The unfortunate truth is that the Oscars tend to award victim narratives (this is true for LGBT cinema as well). While historical narratives do have their place, the resounding sense that any non-white cisgender performer only stands a chance as a victim is subliminal racism unto itself. I think this can be fixed not by ignoring films like The Birth of a Nation, but also by noticing that non-whites have positive, upbeat stories. It is about representing society in all facets. For instance, it's still disappointing that critically acclaimed films like Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi were big heavyweights in various categories, but both failed to earn stars Dev Patel or Suraj Sharma (respectively) a deserved Best Actor nomination. It may be an issue taken up by blacks, but it becomes more prevalent when you notice that every race has their own problem.

With all of this said, 2016 stands a strong chance of being the year that starts to fix this. Beyond the lack of diversity, I want to see stories nominated that aren't just about victims. If The Birth of a Nation stands any chance, I hope it will be alongside other great black films. I'm glad that studios have been doing their homework. Unlike some films, some of this year's contenders don't feel like they were made out of hollow prestige seeking. These feel like more personal stories that transcend the need to bring race into the picture. That's something that white cinema has largely not needed for decades now. It's about time that we see non-white cinema as being just as relevant to modern dramas. To summarize, we need to take screaming black men just as seriously as we do screaming white men (see: Birdman).

On a more literal note, The Birth of a Nation's big hurdle is that Parker has some serious rape allegations against him. Add in that his recent run of interviews hasn't made him the least bit redemptive, and you get the sense that while he's talking about it, he's kind of insincere about everything. I've stated before that I'm part of the group that prefers to separate art from the artist (notably in Woody Allen's case), though I admit it becomes difficult dealing with anyone who is newer to the game. Add in that Parker is black, and it begins to look more hazardous to the career. The simple comparison is that Allen and Roman Polanski still occasionally get Oscar nods despite their controversial pasts. Meanwhile, formerly beloved Bill Cosby has become one of society's biggest pariahs. I'm not sure where Parker will fall.

With all of this said, I still do hope that The Birth of a Nation is a good movie. I hope that it tells a story that is worth looking into. However, I still take certain issues with the film (more specifically its marketing) on a racial level. I do believe that the film could be good and reshape the public conversation on race in America. However, it also likely won't do much to paint blacks too far away from a slave identity. That's not a bad thing - in context. However, I am glad that 2016 has evolved beyond pitting Parker's work as the black film. I'm glad that there is other opportunities out there. I'm just worried that everyone's hedged bets from eight months ago won't pan out the way that they wanted.

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