Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: The Birth of a Nation

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" is a bold directorial debut for the filmmaker and while, as a few critics have pointed out, it displays a few of the uneven choices one might expect from a first time director, the picture is powerful, not only in its depiction of the horrors of slavery but also as a reminder of the turbulent race relations that our nation currently faces.

The film takes its name from D.W. Griffith's landmark 1915 film of the same name, but that's about all they have in common. Griffith's film is considered a significant cinematic work, due to its groundbreaking camera procedures and storytelling devices, and anyone with an interest in film should seek it out. It is also, as you may have heard, extremely unsettling due to the blatantly racist depictions of black people and the KKK's portrayal as heroic.

So, Parker has reclaimed that film's title, so to speak, by using it to tell the story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Southampton, Virginia in 1831 during which he and his band of fellow slaves killed between 55 and 60 white slave owners before he was later captured.

The film opens with young Nat being pronounced by a shaman as a "prophet" and, indeed, Turner was said to have visions that may have been a result of mental illness. Regardless, he was a deeply religious man who, after suffering at hands of the whites, led an Old Testament-style revenge against slave owners.

For the first two-thirds of the movie, Nat appears to be a favorite of his master (Armie Hammer) and even convinces him to buy a young woman named Cherry (Aja Naomi King), with whom Turner later falls in love and marries. In fact, it is a particularly horrific act against his wife - as well as another scene in which a woman (Gabrielle Union) on the plantation where Nat lives is forced to have sex with a white man - that convinces Turner, at least in this film, to lead a rebellion.

Parker plays Turner as a religious man of deeply held convictions, but he's also a combination of a Moses (a leader who easily convinces other men to follow his plan) and a William Wallace (another prophet who was given to bloodshed when it was called for). It's a strong performance and especially so considering that Parker, a novice filmmaker, is essentially directing himself for much for the picture.

For me, the great film about slavery remains Steve McQueen's flawless "12 Years a Slave" and Parker's movie isn't without a few flaws (some of the early scenes of Nat as a boy aren't as effective and a scene in which a head is cut off veers closely toward grand Guignol), but those are easily compensated for by the film's stunning imagery (slaves hanging from trees swaying to the sound of Billie Holiday's haunting "Strange Fruit") and potent social commentary (a statement that people are "killed for no reason at all but being black" resonates just as much today).

"The Birth of a Nation" is a very good movie, an important one and a hint of a possibly great career behind the camera for Nate Parker. The picture is cathartic, especially in a year when white supremacy has reared its ugly head in the U.S., but also a reminder that there's a long way to go. It's a powerful film and one I'd highly recommend.

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