Thursday, October 06, 2016

“The Birth Of A Nation”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new historical drama, “The Birth Of A Nation”, written, directed and starring Nate Parker. 


Can a slave in the 19th century United States lead a successful rebellion against brutal and oppressive owners?


Early in the 19th century, a small boy from a family of slaves in Virginia had it drummed into his head how unique he was and that someday, it would be revealed what his special purpose would be.  When it was learned just how bright he was, the wife of his owner decided to mentor him by teaching the child how to read; she used The Holy Bible to do this.  Not only did he learn how to read, he also became very religious and could easily quote any part of the The Bible.  Unfortunately, his education came to an abrupt end when the plantation owner died and the little boy was forced to work in the cotton fields. 

A quarter century later, this child, Nat Turner, became a man (Parker) who still toiled in those very fields.  The only difference is that now, he also serves as a preacher for all of his fellow slaves on that plantation.  The son of the plantation owner is informed he can monetize this situation by “renting” Turner out to serve as a preacher on other plantations throughout the area.  This works well for the owner, who uses these funds to subsidize his own business.  It doesn’t work out so well for Turner, who doesn’t see any of that money.  What Turner does see is considerable mistreatment of slaves by other owners.

Fed up, Turner goes to his colleagues on the plantation and tries to convince them enough is enough and it’s time to revolt.  Some are reluctant to join Turner because they fear retribution by their owners if their attempt at an insurrection fails.  Others don’t care; after all that they have endure – or witnessed family and friends endure – they are willing to seek revenge, even if it costs them their job or their life.  Together, they join Turner as he visits each brutal plantation owner to mete out their own form of revenge.  But will they succeed in getting their freedom? 


First off, let’s talk about The Elephant In The Room in order to get that out of the way.  In watching Parker’s “The Birth Of A Nation”, it’s hard not to think of filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen.  The reason why is because it is possible to admire them artistically enough though one might vilify them for their personal conduct (one due to politics, the other due to romantic pursuits).  So, with the highly-publicized background of Parker coming to light with the release of this movie, one is forced to compartmentalize and subjugate feelings about the man in order to assess the artist. 

Having said all of that, the film itself can be encapsulated as follows:  “The Birth Of A Nation” is the story of an extraordinary man told in an ordinary fashion.   Nate Parker is clearly a talented filmmaker, both in terms of his acting and directing ability.  As an actor, his countenance speaks volumes in the close-up reaction shots during scenes where Turner witnesses harsh behavior towards slaves.  Regarding his choices as a director, he uses visually compelling shots and isn’t afraid to move the camera when it will add to the scene; Parker also breaks up some talky scenes by intercutting to condense time.  His skills as a screenwriter, however, are less stellar than those other gifts.

The screenplay also suffers from its over reliance on spirituality.  True, Turner was a preacher-slave, but the film is overwrought with religious imagery and allusions to the point that it seems like Parker is trying to say that God is on the side of the slaves.  While this may be intended to resonate Turner’s story, it really just serves to undercut his accomplishments; at the end, when Turner has a vision of an angel appearing to him, that’s really laying it on a little thick – perhaps to the point that you may feel the urge to suppress some unintended laughter. 

The Birth of a Nation (2016) on IMDb

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