Fam, I’m beginning to think we were sold a bill of goods. Nate Parker’s film Birth of a Nation premieres widely this week and it’s being panned by critics just about everywhere. But less than a year ago, reports of this great chef d’oeuvre from Parker flooded the interwebs. What gives? Whether or not we’re going to support the film, one thing remains: Critically, Birth of a Nation might be a mediocre movie about an extraordinary historical figure. Black mediocrity? I think I’m okay with that.
Is Birth of a Nation the Great White (Guilt) Hype?
Questions still need answers, though. I haven’t seen Birth of a Nation yet, but reviews make the execution sound more stillborn than anything. I wonder, then, about the exultant reception Nate Parker’s film received initially at the festival. Who exactly sat in that Sundance audience and catapulted to their feet over a film, that, by wide accounts, critics have meh’d? Who anointed Parker savior, and with $17.5M worth of oil? Where are those people now? Where is the juice?
I do not usually lavish sympathy on folks who have shown themselves unrepentant. I don’t call conspiracy here, still. This ain’t that.
This is me seeing that somebody crowned the emperor too soon and is conveniently mum now that he’s shown himself to be a llama. Be clear: I trust the reviews of the movie. I wish it was good enough to elicit disappointment in Parker for putting a bad taste in our mouths. But an entire theater of people thought that film–and, by extension, Parker–was transportive.
It makes me believe Birth of a Nation is the hype that White guilt built. And ultimately, White guilt as a vehicle for evaluating Black stories will carry Black folks only so far before it leaves us stranded.
But who said Birth of a Nation had to be excellent to merit watching?
I think it’s safe to say we’re on the cusp of a season of artistic #BlackExcellence on screen. There’s so much good Black television programming out right now. We are also anticipating a slew of movies like Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Disney’s Queen of Katwe, all featuring diverse Black stories.
Frankly, excellence excites me. I like to watch good movies. I also like to believe I’m a critical thinker. So I’m not going to call cubic zirconium a diamond, just because its origin is Black. However, I recognize every film isn’t going to be airtight. A poorly constructed movie can still be fun. And a slave narrative that relies on generic tropes can still be educational.
Imagine, for a moment, Nate Parker didn’t make Birth of a Nation. Let’s pretend we are all evaluating it according to its cinematic merits, or lack thereof. It occurred to me the film is suffering from unfairly high expectations from both within and outside the Black community.
Birth of a Nation has every right to be a mediocre film.
The expectations are high in the film community because Sundance heaped all that praise on Parker’s head. I’m still side-eyeing his now-silent champions. For Black folks, the subject of Nat Turner lent the movie perhaps more gravitas than it earned on its own. Parker skated by on Turner’s revolutionary Black liberation cred. It’s absolutely valid to find his film wanting, but maybe we conflated Turner’s greatness for Parker’s. Just a little.
Birth of a Nation never had to be The Greatest Black Story Ever Told. I’m actually a proponent for Black mediocrity prospering. It’s a symptom of White supremacy that everything Black must be superlative in order to succeed. Have we so internalized the gospel of #BlackExcellence and “twice as good, half as far” that we forget to let Black mediocrity live? Am I disappointed the movie might not be as good as advertised? Yes. But you know what also makes me happy? The thought that a distributor threw $17.5M at a mediocre movie a Black man funded himself. Let’s let a mediocre Black woman in there now.
Black mediocrity means a win for #BlackExcellence, too.
Do you know how many producers make and fund mediocre White films yearly? How many mediocre, mostly White television shows get greenlit? The same mayonnaise film vehicles rebooted, made into sequels, and marketed as originality? Bridget Jones’ Baby, anyone?! Black actors are fighting for a seat at that table, too. No denying that Black people are excellent through and through. Melanin, yasss! #BlackGirlMagic, yasss! But everything we make is not. We deserve just as much to be bland, to rely on trite storytelling, and to make ducats when we do.
I’ve read that Mike Colter in Luke Cage is not a great actor*. Let that man be mediocre! His muscles are great. Let his muscles bulge where his emoting falls flat. The role called for smedium t-shirts, Billy Blanks’ milk dud dome, grunts and monosyllabic dialogue, not Braveheart range. I am here for the all of the hype surrounding a live-action Black comic book series. Even if Colter’s acting isn’t excellent, the music is, and the discourse surrounding Luke Cage’s Black literature is. The series altogether proves fun to watch.
If Nate Parker can make a dubiously good movie and find reward, we have hope for more mediocrity. Bring back Homeboys in Outer Space. #BlackMediocrity still represents the diverse spectrum of Blackness.
Have you seen Birth of a Nation or Luke Cage? What’s your impression of either one? *It’s completely subjective what greatness and mediocrity mean to anyone. So if you think either BOAN or Colter’s acting are great, don’t expect me to debate you on it. Enjoy what you love and argue with ya mama.