A Discussion Between
Prof Thug and Stoned Willy Poonhound on
Arrival and The Birth of a Nation
Stoned Willy Poonhound: So thats what we're callin it, huh?
PT: Well, I don't know. You weren't much help with the name.
SWP: Man I'm jus here ta get paid ta talk about movies, I don't care what we call it.
PT: Hey so let's get to it friends! Today we're talking about two movies that couldn't be more different on the surface: Arrival (2016) and The Birth of a Nation (2016).
SWP: Kinda diffrent underneath tha surface too, lets be real.
PT: Maybe, but that's what we're trying to do here. Make connections between seemingly disconnected films.
SWP: Oh that's what we're here for?
PT: Yeah. And to gush over Amy Adams.
SWP: Thats what Im talkin about. Let's start wit that.
PT: Perfect. Amy Adams. The best actress in Hollywood right now.
SWP: Fer like 4 years now.
PT: Pretty much. She stars in Arrival with Jeremy Renner. Adams really solidifies her position on top...
PT: ...and Jeremy Renner proves he's not just a useless superhero or a poor substitute for a James Bond substitute.
SWP: He's easily tha best Hawkeye in Hollywood.
PT: Probably. So Arrival is a sci/fi psychological thriller, but if any of those terms limit your enthusiasm to watch this movie, ignore them, because they hardly apply anyway. There's really only one category for this film: "really good."
SWP: Word. That's why I never use labels. Jus limitin yer imagination.
PT: I agree, Willy. So all the performances are great. Forrest Whitaker is stellar as usual. And the cinematography is beautiful. It takes place in Montana, so it's mostly open spaces and grassy fields surrounded by mountains and grey clouds, with a giant black obelisk hovering above the ground.
SWP: Don't forget military tents. Tell tha people what it's about man. Get ta tha good shit already.
PT: Right. So these 12 spaceships land at different spots all over the globe. They are the giant black orbs you see on the poster. There are seemingly no engines, it just hovers about 20 meters up. A door at the bottom opens every 12 hours and the military sends in teams to gather information. They have made contact with the creatures inside but their communication is useless because the aliens use an advanced alien language.
SWP: Go figure...
PT: Amy Adams is an expert linguist, one of the sexiest job titles I've ever heard...
PT: ...so the government brings in her and Renner, a highly respected physicist, to figure out a way to communicate and find out what the aliens want. It's far from an action movie, but it's not dull at all. Mostly the filmmakers relied on suspense and tension to keep the movie exciting, and they succeeded swimmingly.
SWP: You been waitin years ta use that word in a post.
PT: Maybe. Beyond the beautiful scenery and cinematography of the film, there are a few amazing visual sequences, too.
SWP: Like when they first go in tha ship n gravity reverses itself.
SWP: Tha explosion...
PT: Absolutely. Just a great looking movie. Great sound editing, too, according to the old white men who vote for Oscars.
SWP: And we know they always get shit right.
PT: It's somewhat of a slow-roller, but it creates this sense of intrigue. You know something good is about to happen, and it hooks you early on, despite the lack of action. The anticipation is almost better than the release.
SWP: Kinda like sex.
PT: Not many movies can accomplish that anymore. Before establishing an emotional connection with the characters or the story, most modern movies just jump right into the action.
SWP: Like a college freshman.
PT: That can be fun, but all too often, it makes you not care about what is going on. When you don't establish an emotional connection, why should I care about what's happening?
SWP: This is all about sex right?
PT: No. I mean, yeah, that too. But it's such a common issue with modern movies.
SWP: Goddam fuckin Sucky Suicide Shithead Squad...
PT: Ok, calm down Willy. Don't get all worked up about Suicide Squad again.
SWP: They ruined what coulda been a great fuckin Joker n Harley Quinn fuckin movie man! That shit coulda been...
SWP: Ahhh! I know I know. Sorry.
PT: It's ok. I get angry when I think about Suicide Squad, too. But let's focus.
SWP: Right. Thanks fer coolin me down.
PT: No worries. So Arrival expertly builds tension. You become invested in these characters because they are not one dimensional avatars, and you become invested in their situation because you learn what's happening as they learn it.
SWP: Like a puzzle revealin itself ta tha characters n th audience at tha same damn time.
PT: The same damn time! It's so cool. It's really good on every level. Performances, scenery, feel, structure, story. It's awesome theme-wise, too. It's an examination of the power of communication, the perception of time...
SWP: ...n circles. No wonder ya love this shit.
PT: True. Circles, time, language. These are a few of my favorite things. At one point, Adams espouses the belief that learning a different language can rewire your brain and affect how you view the world. Early in her encounters with the 2 aliens, or the heptapods as the government calls them after discovering they have 7 limbs...
SWP: Or Abbot n Costello, as Renner calls em.
PT: ...she realizes the alien language has no concept of time; there is no past, present, or future, there is just existence. She says writing it would require using both hands at the same time, starting at the edges of a paper and working your way in. You'd have to know exactly what you are going to say and what you have said and how much space it all takes up in order to make complete sentences. That's how they perceive time as well.
SWP: Deep shit.
PT: Very. As she learns the language, she starts having weird dreams and visions of the past.
SWP: Or so it seems dun dun dun.
PT: Right. And in order to avoid spoilers as much as possible, I'll just say that she is right about language re-wiring the brain. She starts to see reality the way the aliens do.
SWP: Which leads ta one a tha coolest climaxes I seen in a while. On sum heavy philosophical shit.
PT: Yeah it's really very powerful and thought-provoking. It was interesting to see the evolution of the human response to the alien ships, too. At first, all the nations where the ships land are very cautious and open to peaceful communication. They quickly grow impatient, though.
SWP: China 'specially.
PT: China is the first to prepare a military strike after Adams and Renner receive a cryptic message from the aliens that says, "use weapon." At the same time, another nation received a message that translated to "offer weapon."
SWP: Ta be fair, that don't sound good.
PT: Yeah, but as Adams says, it could mean a hundred different things.
SWP: Lost in translation n shit.
PT: Yes. They had a limited shared vocabulary. "Weapon" could really mean something like "tool." Or maybe even something like "a weapon that brings peace."
SWP: And thats really what it means.
PT: Yes. They want to give humans a weapon against their own destruction. The aliens want to give humans their language, which will allow humanity to more easily work together and achieve peace.
SWP: And humans gotta come together now ta show tha aliens they're worthy.
PT: Basically. The aliens want to help the humans because they know that in 3000 years they will need the humans' help.
SWP: Must be cool seein all time n space all at once.
PT: A little overwhelming, probably. Anyways, when the countries hear "weapon," they cut off communication with each other. They all want to handle it on their own now, and some follow China's lead in preparing a strike.
SWP: Exactly what tha aliens didnt want.
PT: That creates this tense period where none of the nations are talking to each other. A few American soldiers get it into their head that they need to take this ship out.
SWP: Figures. I like how tha soldiers are inspired by a loud mouth internet "journalist" screamin about how these aliens are so dangerous. We seen that shit somewhere before right?
PT: It's basically an Alex Jones clone.
SWP: That dick fungus. Luckily tha soldiers' plan doesn't go accordin ta...plan...
PT: Something else we've seen a lot of...
SWP: ...'n my girl Amy Adams saves the day usin her new futuristic language abilities. She convinces all tha nations ta start talkin wit each other.
PT: How great is that scene with her and the Chinese president? I got chills watching it unfold. It was like watching the puzzle assemble itself. You finally see the complete picture as the last pieces come together and everything that happened before all becomes clear.
SWP: When she whispered his dead wife's last words? Come on! Crazy!
PT: Incredible. I felt like this was a successful version of the "Martha!" scene in Batman vs Superman.
SWP: Fer real! Like, that's how ya do a "mentionin a dead woman saves tha world" scene.
PT: Right. So the world is saved. All nations are united. And Adams and Renner get married.
SWP: That part was deep too. Sum real shit.
PT: Adams asks Renner if he could see his whole life from start to finish, would he change things?
SWP: Interestin concept. I don't know what I'd do honestly. Probly jus travel ta a different dimension or parallel universe, as usual.
PT: Yeah, it's a tough call. Especially with what Adams knows about her future daughter.
SWP: Yeah tha daughter she's gonna have wit Renner. And see, he doesnt know how ta respond ta that question at tha time, but later, when sum bad shit happens, he gets upset wit Adams fer not tellin him about tha future n not doin anythin ta change tha outcome.
PT: So we find out how he really felt about that question after all. Just powerful stuff.
SWP: So dope. Now...how tha hell does that relate ta Ths Birth of a Nation?
PT: Ok, so let's talk about that. The title of the movie is a reference to DW Griffith's infamous Birth of a Nation, America's first major commercial film, which celebrated the creation of the KKK.
SWP: Celebrated. The. KKK. Fuckin America.
PT: Amerikkka as Ice Cube so brilliantly put it. Yes, the original 1915 film posited the Klan as heroes, saving innocent white women from evil black men. The modern day BoN flips that premise on its head. Slaves are the protagonists here, in particular Nat Turner, played by writer/director/possible rapist/definite asshole Nate Parker. The story focuses on black men killing white slave owners, largely as a response to the rape of black women by white men.
SWP: Kinda weird seein rape play such a big part in tha movie considerin Parker's history, but ya can't avoid tha reality a rape in a story about slavery so it is what it is. I'll say this, it's very rare ta see black people killin whites depicted as heroes in a movie, so I dig it.
PT: Exactly. It's such an unusual thing in film, and that's one of the reasons I thought it was so powerful. Django is the only movie I can think of that shows violence against slave owners. And this is a true story, so it's even more meaningful. Now, if you know American history, you know Nat Turner's slave revolt is ultimately unsuccessful. It's not a happy endin by any sense of the phrase, and there are several shots of lynched black men and women, emphasizing the futility of revolt.
SWP: Mos def a different tone than Arrival's hope n faith in humanity n shit.
PT: True. The film is shot in this dreary blueish hue, which adds to the bleak feel. It's a stark reminder of our nation's not too distant, extremely shameful past. There may not be direct references to time here, but the entire film is a reflection on how the past affects us and informs the present.
SWP: We may be thru wit tha past...
PT: ...but the past aint through with us.
SWP: I dig that, too. But, I mean, look at tha posters. That...really sums up tha difference between tha two movies.
PT: No doubt. I don't deny that the tone and subject matter of the movies is drastically different. BoN is dark and depressing and just brutal.
SWP: Fuckin. Brutal.
PT: As hard as it is to watch at times, I think that's a big part of what makes this movie so good. I see a lot of debate about slave movies and whether or not we need any more of them, and I understand all sides of the argument, especially the claim that we need more movies focusing on positive images of black people. I agree. I also think it's crucial to keep examining our past. We see how people try to erase or re-write history, even very recent history. Certain people would like nothing more than to wipe away or minimize this ugly part of our past. We can't let that happen. We all know about slavery in general terms, but a movie like this makes you truly consider the reality of the horrors of slavery.
SWP: Like when that bitch is draggin her black "friend" by a leash...
PT: I know how you feel about leashes...
SWP: I wanted ta strangle tha nearest white person sooo bad.
PT: I saw that look in your eye. That's why I moved my chair.
SWP: Good move.
PT: The movie is really intense. It's depressing. It's vicious.
SWP: But it's real.
PT: And all that separates it from the alien-focused Arrival. No question. There is a connection with the concept of time and how our present is influenced by the past and the future, though. BoN is about the horrors that we have caused and/or lived through in our past, Arrival is about the amazing things we can accomplish in the future.
SWP: Somethin like that I guess...
PT: But the thing that really connects the movies is the idea of language as a weapon. In Arrival, Renner reads from one of Adams' books. He says, "Language is the foundation of civilization…. The first weapon drawn in a war." That is what the aliens meant by weapon. Now, if you're familiar with slave narratives, like Frederick Douglass's for example, they usually begin when the protagonists learn to read and write. That is their first "weapon" in the long battle for their freedom.
SWP: Ok, ok, I'm feelin where yer takin this. Nat Turner learns how ta read as a young'in.
PT: Yes, like Douglass, he is blessed with the gift of an early education. He learns to read and write, and he becomes a preacher.
SWP: And tha punk ass slave owners use him ta preach ta tha other slaves ta keep em complacent.
PT: The opiate of the masses and all. But Nat is learning more by the day, and he's learning how to fight with words. He tells the other slaves that any time a white person uses the bible to justify slavery, he can find a Bible passage that denounces slavery. This incenses the white men.
SWP: They're bein out-debated by a slave! Dude's got skills on tha mic!
PT: Well, yeah. Minus the mic, but yeah. And that is dangerous.
SWP: Knowledge is power.
PT: Knowledge is the key.
SWP: Jus show me tha lock.
PT: To a slave, knowledge can be freedom.
SWP: And to a slaveowner, freedom is tha enemy.
PT: There it is.
PT: As Nat learned to communicate, he gained power. Eventually, he was able to motivate some slaves to organize and fight back.
SWP: But a course, one asshole snitches n ruins tha whole plan.
PT: Somewhat like the American soldiers, or China, who almost ruined everything in Arrival.
SWP: There's always a hater.
PT:When the countries cut communication and stopped working with each other, they almost doomed all of humanity. They needed to learn to communicate and work with each other, which they eventually did.
SWP: And that's what tha slaves needed ta do, n they did. Fer a lil bit anyway.
PT: For a glorious moment, they were free. But ultimately, the oppressive weight of the past, of American history, came crashing down on them.
SWP: But their story lives on. Their spirits were sent forward inta tha future to inspire others. Shit, we're still talkin about em ta this day!
PT: Now you see it. Time is circular. As the aliens showed us.
PT: I told you there was a connection.
SWP: That's good shit right there. That's Weedle.
PT: Thanks, Willy. I couldn't do it without you.
I Love You All...Spread World Peace!