Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

The Birth of a Nation (2016)
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Kyle Baker is a cartoonist and illustrator who has worked for both Marvel and DC, as well as other comics publishers, creating a wide variety of comics and graphic novels. Why am I bringing him up here, in a post about the new movie The Birth of a Nation? Simple. Among Baker's body of work includes a graphic novel about Nat Turner and a graphic novel called Birth of a Nation. I can't talk about this new movie without mentioning him.

Nation came out first, in 2004. He illustrated the story co-written by Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder and film director Reginald Hudlin. It's a comedy about a predominantly black town that secedes from the United States to form their own independent nation. 

A few highlights: their national anthem is a parody of the theme from Good Times; there's a spirited debate over whether Biggie Smalls or Tupac Shakur belong on their currency; and there's a running joke about picking up chicks at Planned Parenthood. There are serious moments as well, including talk about black disenfranchisement and the meaning of patriotism. It's full of the same socio-political humor that made McGruder's Boondocks a successful comic strip and animated series. Baker's color art is organic and lively, with appealing shapes and sensuous, dynamic line work, rendered in lush, bright colors.

Nat Turner came out in single-issue form beginning in 2007, before the collected edition was released a year later. If you know Baker's art, you're bound to recognize Turner as his, but the style is a marked contrast to Nation. The black and white art is sketchier, starker, like the fever dream of a dying man. Even within the raw images, you can detect Baker's fine, trained hand, his eye for fluidity of form and his ability to communicate with pictures. This is key...

...because Turner contains almost no dialogue from Baker. The only text comes from the memoir The Confessions of Nat Turner, written while the 19th century slave rebel was in prison, after his brief insurrection was put down. Baker uses his art to build a narrative from the bare bones of Turner's text, covering the man's life. It includes the depiction of Africans caught by white hunters, their middle passage by sea to America, and their sale as slaves. Reading the book is not unlike watching a silent movie.

Baker initially self-published Turner despite having no experience. As a former comics self-publisher, I can testify to the extreme difficulty involved in getting your book noticed by a marketplace that perpetually glorifies 50-70-year-old juvenile power fantasies featuring steroid cases in long underwear created by white men. Baker was part of the corporate machine that grinds out those comics week after week for a long time. In the afterword to the collected edition of Turner, he says he had to learn how to self-publish, to start and sustain a business, on his own, something many would-be Stan Lees almost never take the time to do beforehand. I didn't!

It's this DIY spirit (and absolutely NOTHING ELSE) that links Baker, I believe, to Nate Parker, the producer-writer-director-star of Nation the movie. Parker was an established Hollywood actor who had been in some stuff (including Red Hook Summer and Beyond the Lights). He put up $100,000 out of his own pocket to fund this film, which conquered Sundance and looked like as sure a Best Picture Oscar contender as I've ever seen... but. (I'll return to that "but" in a moment.)

In Parker's Nation, we see alleged child of destiny Turner (played as an adult by Parker), a slave, educated by a white woman through the Bible. He becomes a Christian preacher. His owner pimps Turner out to other slave owners so Turner can use God's word to keep other slaves - his own people - submissive. When he has his my-god-what-have-I-done moment, however, he chooses to employ that same Bible to justify his bloody revolt.

It's this sort of thing that once again, makes me believe religion is far more trouble than it's worth. If God exists and the Bible is his inspiration, it was still written by mortal men. Throughout the centuries, far too many people took from it only what they chose and used it for their own ends. One group of people used the Bible to enslave another group and to keep them on their knees. The enslaved used it to throw off their chains and reclaim their lives. In both cases, the result is persecution and murder. In God's name.

They can't both be right. Can they?

So here is the aforementioned "but": it would seem Parker has gotten himself into some serious trouble, to say the least. I saw Nation unaware of the scandal. I found out about it the day after seeing the film, and I like to think I wrote about it objectively. I, however, am not an Academy voter.

I hope the allegations are untrue, for the sake of the women involved, and also for the sake of everyone else who participated in making Nation. Parker may or may not be guilty. His cast and crew, however, should not suffer for his sins. This is an important film. I hope the Academy will judge it fairly.

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