A Tale of Two Parkers
General audiences will finally get the chance to evaluate Nate Parker’s critically-acclaimed The Birth of a Nation (2016) tomorrow, and the powerful craft behind its brutal imagery, as well as interpolations of fictional elements in depicting true events, will certainly spark vigorous discussions in the ongoing dialogue of race relations in contemporary America. This two-hour recreation of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion is, Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter notes, “a labor of love pursued by Parker for seven years, [and] the film vividly captures an assortment of slavery’s brutalities while also emphasizing the religious underpinnings of Turner’s justifications for his assaults on slaveholders. It’s a film very much in tune with the current state of heightened racial friction and one that will assuredly generate a great deal of media attention, and probably controversy.” A key incident inciting the film’s climactic rebellion, involving the rape of Turner’s wife Nancy (Aja Naomi King), has been cited as a historically undocumented event interjected by screenwriter Parker (who plays Nat) and co-story creator Jean McGianni Celestin, and has also been viewed as eerily reminiscent of rape charges, dating from 1999, brought against the two men during their college years but of which they were later exonerated. Parker told Filmmaker Magazine his overall intent is to “challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.” Another touchstone movie in this potent storytelling vein is another truth-inspired yet accuracy-checkered chronicle of race-related violence, Mississippi Burning (1988), based on the FBI’s investigation into the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers. It faced critical headwinds for its distillations of real-life characters into composites, with the lead investigators (played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) leaning down hard with questionable brute force on local authorities and Ku Klux Klan officials covering up their crime and its depictions of African-American as helpless collateral damage in the relentless search for justice. Despite factual shortcomings, its bracing images (cinematographer Peter Biziou won a Best Cinematography Academy Award® for his work), gritty action and mystery procedural framework nonetheless resulted in a healthy $35 million box-office and seven Oscar® nominations, including Best Picture, Director (Alan Parker), Actor (Hackman) and Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand as an informant, again, a “composite” character). Alan Parker himself addresses the issues of Mississippi Burning’s evaluative challenges in a personal essay on his website, and his tone isn’t far removed from Nate Parker’s on his own current film, writing: “Nonescapist cinema is at its most effective when it reflects the world in which we live or, at least, an accurate representation of the world in which our characters live. There is a great difference between information and stimulation. We are open to criticism for tampering with the facts but often the best storytelling comes from challenging accepted truths. And anyway, sometimes truth itself is often floating in some pretty murky waters. To recreate a time and place with maximum authenticity and diligence; to recreate dramatic situations which have an air of reality about them; to write in a language that’s not phony and acted in a way that’s naturalistic as opposed to theatrical should be just good film making, because what all good filmmaking tries to do is to conjure up reality. When all these elements come together and combust, then a sensitive nerve is touched in the audience and suddenly a new set of rules comes into play. Somehow the moral high ground becomes more lofty. The rules become tougher.” Just as The Birth of a Nation sets out to rewrite those rules on cinema screens starting tomorrow, so does the 28-year-old Mississippi Burning, currently combusting on an impressive Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.