I remember that towards the end of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, news outlets bursted posts and articles hailing Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation to be a powerhouse of an film, spewing anger of oppression geared towards both systemic racism and a film industry that seems to endorse such segregation. Because it made such a splash, it was picked up, almost with blurring haste, by Fox searchlight Pictures. Indeed, as much of a moral impediment it is to support such a film, it may have also proved to be a good business venture. As the film made a crater-sized impact at the Utah film festival, the Oscars were in the midst of a continuous barrage of protest for whitewashing the ceremony both in the nominees that were picked and the committee that performs such nominations. An underlying, almost dormant bigotry was being exposed and Nate Parker's film was a slap in the face to the current situation of the film industry; the zenith of its own protest being its titular critique of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation made way back in 1915, illuminating the Ku Klux Klan while simultaneously demonizing the already marginalized black population by intoxicating itself with superficial stereotypes. Thus, the film is not just for the current state of the film industry, but for the incredibly long history that hasn't been addressed.
Then something unexpected happened.
Reports began resurfacing of a rape case against both Nate Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin in which Parker was acquitted but Celestin was convicted only for such conviction to be overturned. The accuser ended up committing suicide in 2012. Such an unfortunate series of events began overshadowing the dominant and unapologetic force of a film. It is as if the tone of the film, a combination of ferocity and frustration, has been warped to meet the new perception of the supposed film, where now the supposed majority sees the film as an extension of the artists' experience (a reasonable assertion), those good and suspect. Indeed, the allegation of rape creeps over a pivotal scene involving one of the main characters being raped by white oppressors. Nate Parker, who stars as Nat Turner, is fueled by fire and brimstone over such a moment, building a resume of accusations to one day avenge.
It is such reactionary heroism that, seen through the lens of unfortunate circumstances, that taints audience perception. A man who was acquitted for a heinous crime is now placing it as a focal point for character change. In other words, the plot progresses at the expense of womanhood. It doesn't help that Parker's reaction to the resurfacing of his past experiences were perceived as ambiguous at best, at least in the sense that if one was expecting an apology then the absence of one may seem startling. Nevertheless, such string of instances have left the film, which may or may not be detached from the artist, in a world of obscurity. Upon the film's nationwide release, the controversy maintained yet it took a different form. Now, there are accusations that the media is inflaming such controversies for the sole purpose of tranquilizing the financial and critical success of the film.
Actually, the media is one possible perpetrator, another target was the black feminists coordinated in the dissemination of information used to slander Parker (with an amusing response from Black feminists). It's all sort of a mess but what cannot be ignored is the web of complexity that, once again, is perpetuated by our perception of the wealth of information brought forth in this modern age and the way in which everyone can have an opinion taken as some sort of dogma. That is not to say that is a problem, but the organization of thought and discourse is unstable, and what we are left with is a, "everyone will agree to disagree," situation in which, at this point, Parker's allegations have not been brought up again. In effect, his stature is most likely miniaturized in the film industry though the past allegations are suspended in some limbo forever more. It's the sort of contradictory position common today.
Here at Cinedreams, I think there is not much to add to this conversation in terms of moral discussion and the social impact of such a sequence. Nonetheless, it may be important to just approach this in a slightly different manner, emphasizing data as a way to interpret the success of the film. And while such data may detach itself from the potential surrounding problems (numbers are usually not bias), there will be an attempt to repurpose the data into the overall chronicle of Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation.
---------------------------------------Evaluation Through Comparison----------------------------------------
The Numbers is a great website, along with BoxOfficeMojo, that helps organize financial data of movies so that we can evaluate trends and relationships. Now, I will not purport myself to be a film industry analyst in any respect, but I feel I have some grasp of financial significance when it pertains to movies. Anyways, I will show that The Birth of a Nation can be justified as successful through analyzation of its own merits while comparing the film with film that fall in the same realm of marketing and demographic. Firstly, let us start simply with the profit over time of Birth from its nationwide release to October 23, 2016, which is the third weekend of its opening. the image is from The Numbers:
One piece of essential data that is missing here is the number of theatres it has played, which happens to be 4,843. Let me be clear about this number (and the next figure will elaborate as well); it is the number of engagements the film has been involved with or how many times it has played in the number of theatres it is distributed across. the number of actual theatres is 2,105. Now, looking at this graph, we can make the safe assessment that the film as 'fairly poor legs.' As in, nothing immediately dire but not optimistic. Now let us bring in some two important numbers:
Now that we have seen the film's financial impact by itself, let us bring in similar films. Now, these similar films fall are a mixture of Sundance hits and films featuring African Americans in important roles, whether be director or actor or both. Let us maintain simplicity and start with one comparison, that of the 2014 hit, Whiplash, which garnered much enthusiasm at Sundance and soared into the Oscars with plenty of nominations and some wins. Of course, I will mention that no African American artist is featured as a major player but the Sundance comparison holds. So, regard the next figure:
Now some subtleties to regard: one is that the cost of rights for Sony Pictures Classics with Whiplash for USA, Australia, and Germany is between $2.5 million and $3 million. Next, the graph only accounts for domestic box office (with the x-axis as number of days screening). If you look at the chart right below, you can see that Whiplash acquired much profit through the international box office. The Birth of a Nation, on the other hand, has not started an international run. So, let us discard international impact for the time being. Of course, it is unfortunate to know how much was spent on marketing and promotion because for Whiplash, as tiny of a film it is, was granted a lot of promotion, especially during the awards season.
This also may explain the shape of the curve for Whiplash, in that it started slowly but picked up as awards season emerged and through a strong promotional campaign, improved more and more through February and into March of 2015. Thus, with costs up to $6.5 million, it returned over 100%. With an average rating of 8.6 out of 10, Whiplash did well critically, without a doubt, and only fueled the incredibly long run (with a re-opening after the Oscars). Now, longevity in regards to The Birth of a Nation is hard to discuss mainly because award season is still approaching and Nate Parker's film has only been out for three weeks.
In our next figure, we expand the number of films which may or may not produce some intrigue. Nevertheless, the type of films remain as Sundance hits, except that more films now feature African Americans in prominent roles. I have retained Whiplash for further comparison:
There is much activity in this graph but we can parse it bit by bit. We already know the situation for Whiplash though we now see it in relation to many more films. Take note that the estimated budget for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, according to iMDB, is $8,000,000. There is a wide distribution of Opening Weekend Theaters and Theatrical Engagements
Let us now compare the domestic box office for each of these films, both comparing Birth with the other films' total domestic box office and then comparing it to their box office using the same amount of days that Birth has been screening. Each bullet point will contain the title, the percentage of the budget that the profit has reached, and the total monetary value of the revenue. At the time of this research, The Birth of a Nation has been out for eighteen days:
So there you go; besides the astronomically great revenue gathered by Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station and the solidly successful Dope, Birth is doing very well just in terms of revenue compared to production budget. Of course, it must be stated that this piece of statistical evidence cannot and should not be a key towards a prediction that Birth will end up as successful as the current trend allows, even if I did hint at such earlier on in the piece. What we have is the past. One more figure to regard is the daily box office performance of Birth and the percentage change between each day:
Besides the 16% increase on October 18th, the rest of the positive changes occur on the weekends, which is to be expected. And, it is not surprising that the amount of money generated is slowly declining. Yet, as we can see, the biggest factor for such a decline might have to do with the decrease in the amount of theaters from 2,105 theaters for fourteen days down to 633. With the rough average of gross profit throughout the eighteen days being $792,495, we can see that the gross profits since day eleven have been no where near the average.
Speaking more personally, The Birth of a Nation only ran through three weekends at the local independent theater though it is still running at the larger Regal theater here in Rochester, NY. Nevertheless, a decrease in theaters is one thing, but the amount subtracted might speak to the confidence Fox Searchlight really has on the profitability of the film. And so here lies the distinction in data perception.
As an independent film with a black independent filmmaker, the results of financial success, especially seen in relation to production budget, is successful, and there is a long understanding that independent films sometimes are not judged my their monetary success (see Blade Runner, Children of Men, and The Shawshank Redemption to start). Even in terms of Oscar nominations (again, look to Whiplash), financial success isn't always a prerequisite. you must peruse the multitude of reviews to see what the critical response amounts to, but it is mostly favorable.
But the showcase of this data can be interpreted in many ways, again, Fox Searchlight may have lost a lot of money, and it is the combination of the enthusiasm the film once garnered now rendered subdued and the lack of confidence Fox had with this film throughout controversy. Their promotional campaign miniaturized maybe in an effort to not being more 'positive' light to a man people are suspicious of. This isn't necessarily a quantifiable observation, but it is the sort of thought process that the marketing group probably took into account.
Conclusively, as you look upon this data, it can be surmised that The Birth of a Nation is not a flop, though, the next question is would fall under, what, statistically speaking, qualifies as a flop? And, since it is still in theaters and can still make money, no matter what. Yet, what also cannot be ignored was the initial investment based off a hype that certainly was not there upon nationwide release. If there was a measurable approach to observe Nate Parker and Jean Celestin's impact on potential profits, it would be intriguing, even compelling, to look into. But, there is no conclusion to be made and, thus, the idea of flop, success, or the film being suppressed is all up in the air. I think one must decide for themselves how they perceive the film, but they should be aware of the other ways of looking at the situation and why they can just be as valid.
In the end, it is also the way in which the film holds up, despite controversy and box office revenue. This is not to say that it is all boiled down to subjectivity (such conclusions suffocate discourse) but, no matter the data, there is still a film that can be analyzed for both its potential merits and potential problems.
-------------------------------------- A Small Critique on The Birth of a Nation --------------------------------------
If there is one thing that can be said about the films unfolding of events that kept me at a distance, not a far distance, but a distance nonetheless, is that much of the film, particularly the first three fifths of the film, are told through montage. Not many scenes linger as we observe Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker) growing up and become the slave master's favorite (played by Armie Hammer). Of course, it slows down to show some horrific treatment of blacks that are incredibly effective, yet, the growth of the titular and supremely influential character felt rushed. One of the best moments, eventually truncated, was when Turner was hired to preach to slaves of other plantations by order of their masters in an attempt to quell their restlessness. Upon his first time preaching to a group of blacks, in which he espouses the necessity to do what you are told, there is an incredible sense of manipulation and awkwardness that fuels a tragic sense of irony.
But it also brings up the best part of the film, a theme of perception. There is an interesting idea Parker confounds to in which faith, or the word of the Bible, can be interpreted as a means of suppression, which he was a pawn for with his roadshow preaching, and as a means of motivation for the oppressed. And such a theme culminates in a nicely composed, pivotal, shot which places Turner's perception of the Good Book as a fuel of rebellion rather than accept it as a tool of manipulation. It is a potent theme and it is topical, because events, moments, or revelations that exist in our time have the tendency to be interpreted with such wild diversity.
It is a shame, because the film is more focused on trying to plot this extensive depiction of Turner's life where simplification could have been beneficial. And such complexity in relation to the number of moments he squeezes in there only end up also trivializing Turner as a strange, brutal, brilliant, and interesting character. There have been reports that some of the scenes present in the film are inaccurate and one can only wonder how Parker and Celestin ended up deciding on what goes into the film and what doesn't but there is a lack of nuance, save the aforementioned thematic element, that neatly fits his arc into a story already told.
One inaccuracy is probably the one the conveniently fits with the troubling narrative of Parker this past year and that involves the rape of Turner's wife, Cherry. Now, I will say that the scene, by itself and severed from any contextual obscurity, is handled both with intensity, but without much indulgence. We don't see anything but the brutal aftermath. Now, bringing everything back into focus, the fact that this event did not happened, coupled with Parker's own life, it is just hard for many people to sit comfortably with the motivation behind such a staged scene and one could say that such a scene breaks down any chance for the elusive nuance and places the rape as a convenient plot device to begin the change of Turner. And moreover, there are plenty of other moments that could of easily been used as that fueling plot device.
Yet, it is hard to considerably denounce the credibility of the film based off historical inaccuracies, to an extent. Most notably, the idea that returning to historical events allows us to make the story a contemporary metaphor for what we see today, which is why the theme of perception rings well in the film. Just look at The Social Network and the invention of Zuckerberg's girlfriend to see how something like that is employed, and Dvid Fincher and Aaron Sorkin had their artistic right to do so. But my defense does break down when you consider the significance and justification for certain liberties and the girlfriend invention as compared to the rape can be seen as clear. In addition, as stated in The Nation piece, the urgency of not just the topic to appear on screen but a dignified and accurate iteration of the topic comes into play, and Parker makes bizarre choice to ascend Turner into a formulaic hero, culminating in a battle scene that has been portrayed countless times before, particularly in many Mel Gibson films. So we then can only conclude that the life of Turner and the oppressed black slaves in America can somehow be tied closely with the Scottish rebellion in the Middle Ages and the Americans fighting for independence.
Those are the major concerns, there are little ones that litter the film here and there. The score is surprisingly traditional and, even though it gives us hints of more ethnic instrumentation, the majority of the time is remains safe and, unfortunately, obvious. Also, it is hard not to compare this film to 12 Years a Slave, which has most of the moments presented here in the film but does it better. If inaccuracies are a potent problem, then one should also wonder why we should want to watch this again when the alternative could have been a more unique and telling story of a man far different from Solomon Northup. Nevertheless, the story itself, as fierce and intense as it is, remains safe. It is still a well-made film without a doubt, but there should have been more room for exploration, more lingering in the thematic element of perception and faith, and more care with the gravity of Turner's choice to become violent.
And so where are we at after all of this? It has been a confusing year? The one thing I have tried to do and may have succeeded for the most part is keeping my critique of the film separate from Parker and Celestin. But even I must not be completely ignorant of the context of which this film was made and exhibited in the same way I should always be conscious of the films of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. My thoughts on it are simple: the film itself can be good or bad regardless of the artist. But if it is good, or even great, I will only diffuse my condolences towards the work, itself, but my condolences towards the artists will not change. In other words, unless circumstances change, there is no reason for me to express more admiration or respect for these people. When it comes to Nate Parker, I will not go as far as to state some solid assumption of what really happened many years ago at Penn State, but I will hold my reservation for any future applause that I could give him. It is obscurity that keeps me from reacting and it will continue to do so.
I really don't think there is a campaign against The Birth of a Nation for its blackness, though I will not omit possible trepidation from people not use to the black experience on film. Also, I don't think Parker's insertion, as strange as it is, of the rape scene is in fact an indulgence of a criminal activity he might have been involved with. Yet, this is not to erase the life and memory of a victim who felt helpless long after the incident occurred, even with Parker unaware. And calling this film a flop may just be as subjective as calling it effective. Through the data I have presented, nothing extensive, it should be clear that there are ways where you can call it a flop and you can't; it all depends on the parameters of your perception. Unearthed through these events is maybe a heightened awareness of understanding circumstance, context, and complexity...such is a commonality in our Information Age.
Filming a lonely road stretching diagonally towards the horizon, a lighting bolt sears through the pewter sky. Kirsten Johnson gasps in amazement. Moments later, thunder returns the favor with a heavy constitution. Observing the stillness of a graveyard in Bosnia, Johnson and her director discuss the merits of having no bystander walking into the frame; the tombstones stand on their own. In Alabama, evidence is being laid out in a trial involving a man who was dragged to death from behind a car, the lawyer speaking in some detail seems to be restraining a sadness and fear of the atrocity. Moments, captured and embalmed in film, float together with a disregard for chronology as memories sort of flood into the retrieving mind unexpectedly. These moments are possessions of Kirsten Johnson, captured through the many projects she participated in as a documentary cinematographer. Cameraperson is her visual memoir of these delicate, but powerful moments. Like almost a stream of consciousness or a series of dreams emerging and fading, we are transported through space and time almost arbitrarily, with a figment of a theme or symbolic motif binding these moving images with brief, but bold, slivers of the human condition. Alas, it amounts to a visceral experience, where we are allowed a moment of entrance to the extremely personal, finding respite in the many instances, sympathizing and binding with the images.
Its reflexive construction, anchored by such recollections, opens Johnson up to ways of expressing such memorial journeying through editing, in which shots and scenes are placed together either motivated by a specific emotion or a certain intellectualism. One sequence early on in the film suggests hectic movement a documentary filmmaker must adapt when following a moving subject with no knowledge of where they are going. The cuts quicken as the motion within the shots quicken, resulting in a hilarious moment where Johnson makes a surprising misstep. Later on, a montage of mostly still shots quietly observes the variety of locations where some form of atrocity against humanity occurred: genocide, execution, or mass rape. One location was a deserted motel. Another was an empty pool. Such a montage was prompted by the emphasis Johnson upholds of her time in Bosnia, where she recounts the stories of several women during the ethnic cleansing in the 90s. It is as if a painful memory of one atrocity reminded her of all the times she has come across such remnants of tragedy. To us, with only some reference cue from title cards, we contemplate in sadness. Not all sequences carry such aesthetic or thematic adhesion, expressing maybe a freestyle recollection, but when things are adhesive with some core concept, it buries into our imagination.
As an outsider of such memories, there is a clarity of discerning the bravery, courage, and maybe even recklessness of Johnson and the slew of directors she works with, capturing moments that are dangerous, to say the least. Yet, such bravery is not always aligned with how dangerous a moment is but also how personal and vulnerable it can be. Aside from Bosnia, another prominent memory thread are the scenes captured of Johnson's mother, shown devolving tragically into the void of Alzheimer's. Indeed, it is not difficult to see Johnson ruminate on these moments where she actively participates in remembering and preserving her past as she captures her mother whose memories are gradually withering away.
If memory and the emotional and intellectual impressions that unearth themselves through remembering finds itself as the more ethereal theme hovering among the visual moments, then on a more practical level, yet just as intriguing, is the sense that Cameraperson is also an expose of the ethics and responsibilities of documentary filmmakers. Many moments are indications where Johnson not only grew as a human being understanding the world around her, but as a filmmaker who begins to understand maybe the social or cultural obligations and complexities involved when representing actuality. When Johnson and her director film a birth to a boy who is lacking of oxygen, there is an uneasy instance where the doctor has left, searching for oxygen to give, leaving only the filmmakers in the room with the struggling infant. I will not reveal more, but place faith in the idea that what is exhibited is immeasurably gripping.
As the visual memoir shapes our perception, the lens from which we see this world ultimately is shaped through Kirsten's imagination, where the camera is an extension of her own perception of the world, how not only she wants to see it but how she wants others to see it. Although the disjointed collection may contribute to a risk of detachment from scenes only to be seen as sensationalized, it is also an effective mechanism illustrating the difficulty of providing a summation of your memories and experiences. In spite of such risk, these moments, assembled in some mysteriously personal manner, may be the conclusion of Kirsten's attempt to step back from her experiences, marking points on her journey for which she changed direction in her walk of life. And a most wholesome life it has been.
So I am more than content to watch this film under an aura of mystery, a personal mystery that is both being presented bravely by Johnson but restrained just the same. All that can really be shared are the cornucopia of feelings jutting prominently out of the images we see.