Tuesday, October 11

REVIEW: The Birth of a Nation

Directed by Nate Parker
2016 Biographical Drama
2 hours
From Fox Searchlight

Nate Parker
Armie Hammer
Mark Boone Jr.
Colman Domingo
Aunjanue Ellis
Aja Naomi King
Dwight Henry
Jackie Earle Haley
Penelope Ann Miller
I confess that I have seen so many Civil War films and films dealing with slavery that I am almost numb from the experiences. While I'm confessing I might as well add I feel the same about Holocaust stories (although Denial is on my must-see list).  In no way do I intend any disrespect but I know that I only intend to see these types of films in the future if I sense that they are extremely well-made and offer a point of view that is something new.  

I may have passed on 12 Years a Slave (2013) had it not been for the fact that it was based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery.  Here we have another story based on true events... the 48-hour slave rebellion in 1831 orchestrated by a literate slave and preacher, Nat Turner, in which scores of white slave-owner families were murdered along with many slaves.

Turner was born in Virginia and lived there all of his 31 years. The film depicts his childhood in which he has a yearning and an aptitude for reading.  The white mistress of the manor that holds him in bondage shows an interest and teaches him how to read.  He also discovers religion as a result of learning to read the Bible.  He preaches to whomever he can and is asked by other slaveowners to visit their plantations to preach to and calm their rowdy and/or uncooperative slaves.

Ultimately, of course, he puts down his bible and picks up whatever weapon he has handy and seeks revenge on his beatings, his wife's molestation, his life-long white master and friend turning on him and all the other atrocities he witnesses.  

One thing I greatly admire about this movie is that it is in your theaters due to the tenacity and talent of a black filmmaker. Parker co-wrote it, co-produced, directed and starred to the point that he is virtually in every scene.  He chewed on this one for some time... like a bulldog with a leather toy. He not only wanted to tell Turner's story but he wanted to tell it his way with a 2016 sensibility.  Slave movies, often done as action films, have often been done to the point of caricature and black men, at least, are either shown as enjoying their comfy life inside plantations or they're highly sexualized and rampaging. Rarely have they been drawn with such pathos and humanity as is done here (and in 12 Years a Slave, as well). 

While we're at it, other than sharing a title, this film has nothing to do with D. W. Griffith's silent film of 101 years ago.  That one, while popular, was also highly controversial and incendiary in its depiction of unintelligent black men lusting after white women. Flames were further fanned by the fact that it featured white actors in black face.  Parker's film in no way compares to the former one except in using the title which he found appropriate to help put the former film way in the back of the closet.  

I liked Parker's acting and he most thoughtfully breathed life into Turner.  The acting and writing was certainly heartfelt. Parker has a pair of wonderfully soulful eyes that project such warmth.  The rest of the cast cannot be faulted although, in some ways, except for Hammer, they're not given a lot to do.

I've heard Parker in some interviews and read some articles (written or orchestrated by others who irresponsibly drifted from writing or speaking about only the movie) and I know he thinks this film will be a real positive experience for blacks and draw great words of praise from them and he's working double duty to get audiences to build.  That may or may not work out for him. It's not Roots... I'm not sure anything in this genre ever could be.  

I hope Parker continues on his course.  He is needed to tell a modern-day version of the African-American story. Those racist times of yore are still with us unfortunately.  Write, produce, direct and star in your vision of something important of today you want us all to know.

Next posting:
A good 40s film

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