Monday, October 17, 2016

The Birth of a Nation - Movie Review

Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Aunjanue Ellis, Colman Domingo, Mark Boone Jr., Gabrielle Union and Roger Guenveur Smith.
Written by Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin.
Directed by Nate Parker.


It's 12 Years A Slave meets Braveheart. Now I loved 12 Years a Slave, and I loved Braveheart, but I'm not so sure they should meet.

This is a biopic of Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in 1831 and resulted in the deaths of about about 65 whites and 200 blacks. We meet Nat as a young slave boy. The white matriarch takes a liking to him and teaches him to read from the Bible. When the patriarch dies, his wishes are that Nat return to the cotton fields.

But Nat gets really good with the Bible and preaches to the other slaves on Sunday. When his current master Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) gets into debt, he's given a profitable idea from the local preacher (Mark Boone Jr.). Other slave-owners would pay him to have Nat preach to their slaves. You know, preach from the verses that justify slavery.

The movie is full of brutality and cruelty. There's more than one rape and many of the expected whippings and torture of slaves. Nat sees that while his own situation is bad, the surrounding plantations are far worse. He starts reading the verses in the Bible that justify fighting injustice, slave revolts, and killing oppressors.

This is all from Nate Parker. He is the writer, director, and star. There are many close-ups putting his face squarely in the middle of the frame. It has a level of admirable messiness from an undisciplined auteur. We see the beauty of the cotton fields at dawn, juxtaposed with blood on the ground where a slave was beaten or killed.

The movie is about how the Bible was misused to justify slavery, or it's about how blind the institution made whites to the inhumanity of the arrangement, or it's about what Black Lives Matter looked like 180 years ago. Or it could be other things. There's a complex relationship between Nat and Sam, but in their final scene together, I wasn't sure what emotions they were experiencing. Just an example where the movie could have benefitted from more polish.

My comparison to Braveheart is if you stretched out the indignities the English inflicted on the Scottish, and then condensed the last two hours into 30 minutes. It also takes many liberties with what the actual historical record shows. (For example, Sam died in 1823, but he's alive during the 1831 rebellion here.)

Overall I liked it. It packs a punch. It has its flaws, but I'd rather a movie had too much to say than nothing to say.

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