This past weekend at the Box Office went off without a hitch, leading to an exceptionally poignant week in cinemas what with The Girl on the Train and The Birth of a Nation pulling into the station... ehmm, I mean theatres nationwide.
The psychological mystery thriller film, The Girl on the Train, directed by Tate Taylor of The Help fame, topped the box office with a weekend gross of $24.5 million, which doesn’t break any records but it is over half the budget, as well as $10 million higher than the number two spot. That said, I believe this film will have some staying power due to positive word-of-mouth. The Girl on the Train is about three women, Rachel, Anna, and Megan, and how their lives intersect…and in order to avoid spoilers, I won’t say much more than that. But I will say that this is a strong thriller with pulse-pumping tension and masterful performances.
Emily Blunt leads the talent-steeped cast as Rachel, an alcoholic susceptible to blackouts; her range and energy in this film is only the outer layer of an intricate performance that deserves some Oscar buzz, regardless of how unlikely that may be since this is “just a thriller.” Haley Bennett all but steals the show as Megan, a woman who is easily idealized, but beneath her allure hides a chilling darkness and a painful past. It is her character that summons so many comparisons to Gone Girl from a few years ago, and after seeing both films, I must disagree…but I won’t tell you why because you should just go see both of this movies and discover the reason on your own. Rebecca Ferguson plays Anna, a wife and mother who has some secrets of her own, and her performance is less abrasive than the first two, which is exactly the balance the film needed. Luke Evans also shines in a turn-on-a-dime performance as Scott, Megan’s husband, and lastly Justin Theroux plays Tom, Anna’s husband, in a performance strewn with subtleties in an exercise in range. Beyond the brilliant cast, though, is a strong adaptation of a novel that may not seem like it has staying power, but despite not changing the game of psychological thrillers or bringing anything entirely new to the table, there is something to be said about a genre piece done exceptionally well, and that is exactly how to describe The Girl on the Train.
Coming in at the number six spot this week is our second newcomer, the highly controversial The Birth of a Nation from first-time director Nate Parker, which pulled in $7 million on a reported $10 million budget. Considering it was the opening wide-release weekend of an independent film, that is not too shabby in the least, and a lot of this success can be attributed to its record-breaking purchase for a wide release at this year’s Sundance festival. Unfortunately, however, the controversy and festival record-breaking, as well as the sensational and sensitive subject matter (especially in our current social climate) is the most flash this film brings to the pan.
Speaking from a technical standpoint, the audience is required to give Parker’s direction plenty of benefit of the doubt (with arguably too much screen time focusing on his spotty performance as Nat Turner than on the heavy and potent story at hand) which can be expected of an independent film from a first-time director, and that is more than understandable, save for the fact that this is a film that specifically desires to make a statement and leave a legacy, and with that level of expectation, it is going to garner that level of scrutiny. Parker’s performance did have moments of brilliance, and his conviction is undeniable, but he never really allowed the rest of his cast to shine through on their own. Armie Hammer felt more like an outline than an actual human character and never truly came to life, and Aja Naomi King had the talent to give an unforgettable performance, yet was hindered by the weak writing. Perhaps the biggest disappointment about this film is what it could and should have been, pulling the title from one of the most racist and yet somehow still revered films in the history of cinema. To put it bluntly: if this film were titled anything but The Birth of a Nation, it would be an underwhelming and wholly forgettable film on the subject of slavery. Then again, grabbing attention was Parker’s intention, but once given that attention, the film was less than satisfying in its message.
Now as a preface for our readers who don't personally know me, I am a white man, and therefore I have absolutely no conceivable idea what it is to be a black person; it is impossible for me to imagine that experience, no matter how many perspectives from the black community that I hear. As such, I cannot rightly give any criticism about whether or not this film captures such an experience accurately, and if anything, I can only commend it for being told in a fresh way: a story about slavery that does not have a white savior character, a criticism (perhaps the only criticism) I have with the far-superior 12 Years A Slave. This may be the only film about this time period ever made that is entirely told from the perspective of a black person without any whitewashing; there are no white characters to which a white audience can feel comfortable relating, and none of them are redeemable from their evil lifestyle of owning or condoning the owning of another human being, and that is indescribably refreshing. Perhaps the most troubling aspect, though, is the film’s handling of the subject of violence. From an historical perspective, yes, Nat Turner did lead a revolt, which did kill many people. This is historical fact, and I am not by any means discrediting Birth of a Nation for depicting it in a realistic way.
I am, however, submitting that the way violence was handled within the parameters of filmmaking was a glorification of that violence, and that it promotes Nat Turner as a Christian hero for using violence to make his message heard. More so, the fact that Turner uses this righteous fury to support his violence is in direct opposition to the teachings of Christianity. There was no hero’s downfall for Turner, or a descent into this violence, but rather a depiction of Turner having a revelation and claiming God permitted and encouraged this violence, which, although historically factual in Turner’s life, is a dangerous concept regardless of race or gender. Revenge is rejected and murder forbidden in the Christian faith, and although there is a line in the film that says, “this is not revenge,” the actions carried out by many of the characters prove otherwise, and to have the chance to make a film about violence only creating more violence with the whole country watching, but then to not take it, is a missed opportunity. It is a dangerous idea to bring to modern civilization that the oppressed should murder the oppressors and to glorify that idea, and in a time where we as a culture desperately need to hear (and truly listen to) black voices, how disappointing that this film, an attempt to counter the blatantly racist original film from 1915, chooses to say “an eye for an eye” and desires to incite a feeling of violent revenge instead of the truth that violence only begets more violence.
Furthermore, this film’s depiction of violence against women is an even greater and uglier flaw. It contains more than one instance of rape, and though these atrocities happen off-screen, the problem is that the victims never get their own fair due of onscreen response. The women are not fleshed out characters, but rather property of males – just another reason for Nat to be angry. They are not treated as people who have had an unspeakable act forced upon them, but rather as fuel for male anger, pain, and revenge that this happened to their wives, sisters, and mothers. This is a problem for any film, but this in particular is worrisome because of Nate Parker’s history with mistreatment of women and attitude toward his perception of masculinity and gender roles. It cannot go unsaid that his rape allegations make the depiction of women in his film questionable and concerning, and the fact that this particular rape wasn’t even historical, but rather an entirely fictional addition, is even more unsettling. It’s a shame that a film with so much potential to make a real difference has to have this controversy surrounding it, but it’s even more so a shame that yet another film has been made that treats women only as their relation to men, and not as individual human beings. The utter mistreatment of black women in a film that has the intention of promoting the visibility and respect of black lives is heartbreaking.
Now, with all that said, weighed, and considered, I must make clear that this is a decent film; for all that it is, and in light that it is a debut film - albeit with a messy message - it is by no means a failure. How admirably confident of Nate Parker to choose this particular film as his directorial debut, and what a splash it made even if it wasn’t an entirely positive one. Birth of a Nation is imperfect, but important. The biggest accomplishment here is that this film is only one of many yet to come, a springboard from which many more films from and about the black perspective can and should arise. Support black filmmakers and listen to their stories. Hopefully these stories, and more stories from many more backgrounds, will hold a message true to the fact that we need to shed violence and focus on unity and education, that we need to treat minorities of any cultural background as the human beings that they are, listening to what they say instead of treating them as lesser due to skin color or culture, and to demolish the implicit structural racism and privilege so apparent and rampant in the white existence.
Oh, and Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life got the number seven spot and really isn’t worth mentioning.
Looking ahead to next week, though, we see the release of Warner Brothers’ The Accountant starring Ben Affleck, which will likely take the top of next week’s charts due to its 3,000+ screen release and Affleck’s star power. We will also see the release of Kevin Hart’s new stand-up concert blockbuster What Now? which showcases his massive 2015 stand-up comedy world tour. Hart has a huge draw, but stand-up films generally don’t do particularly well in theaters, so this one is more of a toss-up. And finally, Max Steel – a superhero toy adaptation that I frankly doubt anyone will see despite its 2,000 screen release.
Well, that’s all for this week! Go see a film, because art is important and can make a difference in our society, our culture, and our world as a whole!