The Birth of a Nation (2016)


Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

(2016) Historical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Mark Boone Jr., Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Tony Espinosa, Jayson Warner Smith, Jason Stuart, Chiké Okonkwo, Katie Garfield. Directed by Nate Parker

 

It has been more than 150 years since slavery ended in this country and still it is necessary for the descendents of those in bondage have to remind us that Black Lives Matter. It is sadly evident from the shenanigans of the followers of Donald Trump, from the evidence that the KKK is still alive and well and for the institutionalized racism that allows people to think that flying a Confederate flag isn’t offensive to a sizable percentage of the population that we still have a long way to go.

However when Nat Turner (Parker) was alive slavery was in full force and there was no end in sight. He lived in Southampton County, Virginia and as a boy (Espinosa) played with the scion of the plantation owner. The owner’s wife (Miller) saw something in the young boy and sought out to teach him how to read – although only the Holy Bible, because she felt that would be the only book useful to him. After the plantation owner passed away his son Samuel Turner (Hammer), now grown, orders Nat back to picking cotton much to his mother’s disappointment.

However, it turns out that Nat has a talent for preaching the gospel and it seems to calm down the slaves – it might not hurt that Samuel was, as owners go, fairly reasonable and less cruel. The local parson (Boone) witnesses Nat’s testimonial and suggests to Samuel that he send out his slave to surrounding plantations to placate the workers by preaching to them the Gospel. As this would put direly needed coin in Samuel’s pocket, he agrees and Nat begins to see first-hand what the conditions on other plantations are like.

He also meets Cherry (King), a comely house slave that he urges Samuel to buy. Eventually he lets her know that he’s smitten by her and she eventually relents to his charms. The two are married Gullah-style but as Cherry is now working on a neighboring plantation, they see each other rarely.

But tensions between slaves and whites are growing exponentially and after Cherry is brutally raped by white slave catchers led by the despicable Raymond Cobb (Haley) and soon thereafter his friend Hark’s (Domingo) wife Esther (Union) is raped by a lusty slave owner from a neighboring plantation. Nat begins to realize that the entire institution of slavery is unjust and that it is his duty to help the Lord strike it down. In August of 1831, he and a group of his fellow slaves, pushed beyond their limits, go on a spree, attacking plantations and killing the owners and their families. The first blows of a civil war have just been struck, although none will know it at the time.

Some (including myself) will compare this to 12 Years a Slave and there are some things that do make the comparison palatable. Both films show the brutality of slavery and both films show how unjust it was. However while 12 Years was a lot more intellectual an endeavor, this is from the gut. It captures the rage of angry black men who certainly have a great deal to be angry about.

This is clearly a passion project for Parker who produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in and likely sold tickets in the box office for. Passion projects can be double edged swords when it comes to doing biographies. There can be a tendency to mythologize the subject and I think Parker indulged in that a little bit here. The Nat Turner that is depicted here is almost saintly until the sexual assaults drive him to lead a bloody uprising in which women, children and even infants are murdered. One has to deal with some of the gruesome deeds that occurred at the hands of Turner and his followers, however justified they may have been. I don’t believe I’m being racist when I say that Turner, about whom little is really known from a historical perspective, was likely not that nice; what we do know about him suggests that he had hallucinations – or visions if you like – of angels and divine beings (which to be fair are depicted in the film) and that he himself felt that he was being called by God to dispense justice to the slave owners and lead his people out of bondage as a modern day Moses.

Parker is at a bit of a disadvantage, truth be told; Turner was a rarity among slaves in that he could read but most of what we know about him comes from Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia written by the white lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray and supposedly based on his actual confession, although many historians question its validity. Parker had to fill in a lot of blanks and does the best he can. Even William Styron, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968, had to essentially invent Parker as a fictional character, which brought a lot of outrage from African-American intellectuals and civil rights leaders at the time.

The depictions of the horrible things suffered by slaves at the time may be among the most graphic ever put to film and may be too much for sensitive viewers. For my own part, I’m glad that Parker chose to go this route; too often Hollywood has portrayed slaves as sad people in chains singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and wondering when oh when Lord will we be free. The reality of their existence was brutal and inhuman and while there were slave owners who were compassionate, there were many who were not.

Parker gives a searing performance as Turner and he shows a ton of screen presence here. He is supported by Hammer, whose character is a borderline alcoholic and certainly not always a kind and gentle man towards his slaves. Domingo is a tower of strength in his role as Hark, one of Turner’s confidantes and closest friends.

I do think that Parker would have benefitted with a little more objectivity in the script; it feels like the storytelling here is a bit rote and a bit too linear. That’s more or less just quibbling over grammar in a sense, and shouldn’t deter that many from going to see this.

Some right wing sites have drawn parallels between the film and the Black Lives Matter movement and perhaps that was intentional, but to be honest I don’t think Parker is advocating that black men rise up and start slaughtering white people indiscriminately; after all, that approach didn’t end very well for Turner or the others that rose up with him.

The film has generated some controversy based on Parker’s past legal issues. You can read about them elsewhere. I find it a shame that they have likely had an effect on the attendance for a very good movie about a very worthy subject. That’s not to vindicate Parker or what he allegedly did, albeit he was acquitted of all charges against him. I’m not a big believer in punishing someone for something they’ve already been acquitted of not doing. While the guilty sometimes get wrongly proclaimed innocent, more often people are acquitted because they are innocent.

This is an intense cinematic experience that is sadly mostly out of theaters. It should soon make its way to home video and who knows; if it gets any Oscar attention it might well get a theatrical re-release. Either way this is a movie worthy of your attention for both historical and cinematic reasons alike. It’s most definitely an angry young black man film, but it behooves all of us to listen to what angry young black men have to say.

REASONS TO GO: The Nat Turner story deserves to be told. The depiction of slavery is as brutal as any film has ever shown it to be – which is a good thing. Strong performances by Parker, Hammer and Domingo elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those with right-leaning tendencies may find the film to be polarizing. Muddies up history a little bit and makes safe storytelling choices.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is brief nudity and some fairly disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film depicts the turning point in Turner’s decision to revolt as a brutal assault on his wife, in reality his writings don’t acknowledge that he was married, although there is evidence that there was a marriage. Contemporary accounts do mention that he trusted her with his plans for the uprising but whether or not they were actually husband and wife still remains a mystery. Most historians regard the reason for his rebelliousness as spiritual visions and consider it unlikely that he felt his marriage, if it did indeed exist, was a valid one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Years a Slave
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Girl on the Train

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Missing Pieces


Missing Pieces

Mark Boone Jr. looks off into a confusing future.

(2012) Drama (Contraction Entertainment) Mark Boone Jr., Melora Walters, Alana Jordan, Taylor Engel, Daniel Hassel, Victoria Mullen, Joyce Liles, Hannah Hughes, Jocelyn Druyan, Jackson Pyle, Jeremy Windham, Emana Rachelle, Carlissa Arrow. Directed by Kenton Bartlett

Love is not the easiest thing in the world to understand or come to grips with. We just know when we’re in it and we don’t always know when we’re out of it. Sometimes, it ends sooner for one participant than the other; sometimes we have to go to extraordinary lengths to figure out why.

David Lindale (Boone) is not your ordinary average guy. He’s a big hulking dude who looks like he might rip your head off of your neck but a look at his eyes shows that he’s really just a big teddy bear who has a few light bulbs short of a chandelier. It’s not his fault – an accident left him a bit fragile from a mental standpoint – but if David seems a little slow on the uptake he still follows his own path of logic that is at least a different way of thinking.

Delia (Walters) is his girlfriend and she’s had enough. David has been getting worse in his confusion and his well-intentioned but ultimately inappropriate actions, and she wants to call it quits. David tries everything he can to get her to stay but she is adamant; it’s time for the both of them to move on. David is nowhere near ready to and that leads him to an act that may on the surface seem very crazy and spontaneous but in truth took a good deal of planning; he kidnaps two young people – Maggie (Engel) and Daylen (Hassel) – and puts them in a situation where they must learn to rely on each other. What will become of what David considers to be a social experiment?

This movie, first and foremost, is a labor of love. Bartlett only picked up a video camera for the first time a mere three years from the time he finished this movie, and clearly this project means the world to him. He got a number of friends and professionals to lend their talents gratis for the movie and you get a sense that the cast and crew had complete buy-in regarding the project.

Bartlett did quite a few things right here. For one thing, he cast the main roles to near-perfection. Boone, who has had minor roles in Batman Begins and Memento (both Christopher Nolan films) makes a terrific David. He has a mournful pair of eyes that sits in the body of a man who you wouldn’t necessarily see as sensitive at first glance. Boone does a lot of acting with those eyes and gets across his frustration in failing to understand what is happening and why. He’s not stupid – he’s just confused. The difference is huge and important here.

Walters, Engel and Hassel all do bang-up jobs in roles that could have easily been clichés (and would have been in a studio film) but bring some humanity and personality to their parts. That makes for a compelling character study and to my mind, that’s essentially what this film is.

Now to the bad news. This is told in a non-linear fashion (as was Memento) and while that’s an ambitious, ballsy move, it is also incredibly difficult to pull off and Bartlett doesn’t quite do it – the beginning of the movie is confusing at times. It is worth hanging in there for however.

Again, this is clearly a labor of love. The intent of the moviemakers was not to get headlines in Ain’t It Cool News or to be on everybody’s lips at Sundance, but to make a quality movie and get people to see it. They have an uphill climb ahead of them and I do wish them well. However, they managed to get some theater space in Birmingham in September and played a night in Los Angeles; I’m sure they will be making the festival rounds next year.

They were kind enough to provide a review copy for me and while I can’t laud them as the best thing since sliced bread, I can say that if you take a chance on this movie and give it a viewing (and if you hurry, they’re available on prescreening.com (link below) until mid-November 2011) you may well be pleasantly surprised. This movie got made for all the right reasons and there is enough here to make it worth your while. If you love movies, this is a film after your own heart.

REASONS TO GO: Well-acted with a story that is unique and compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is told in a non-linear fashion and the beginning of the movie is often hard to follow.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult situations and language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie had 588 people volunteer their time at no charge for various duties on the production.

HOME OR THEATER: This will be awfully hard to find in a theater; it should be much easier to find either on Netflix (eventually) or on prescreen.com.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Chasing Amy