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

Django Unchained


Smoking the competition.

Smoking the competition.

(2012) Western (Weinstein) Jamie Foxx, Leonardo di Caprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayoutte, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, RZA, Anthony LaPaglia, James Remar, Jonah Hill, James Russo, Walton Goggins, David Steen, Nichole Galicia, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most iconic film directors of our time. When all is said and done I truly believe he’ll occupy a spot in the pantheon among the best ever. He has a love and respect for genre films that places him squarely in fanboy territory, yet he understands what’s great about them and how to turn them into something more than just basic entertainment. He elevates them – which is why I sit waiting with baited breath for his first horror/sci-fi film.

Until that day, you get to deal with his latest which takes on the spaghetti western, although this is set in the antebellum South so you might join Tarantino in referring to this as a “Southern.” In it a German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) liberates a slave named Django (Foxx) from a group of slave traders delivering their property to the market. It seems that Django once worked on a plantation where a trio of wanted men – the Brittle Brothers – had worked as overseers. Dr. Schultz has paper on them but doesn’t know what they look like. Django does. A partnership is born.

They travel to the plantation of Big Daddy (Johnson) where Django spots the brothers, two of whom are getting ready to whip a slave. Oh, no you didn’t. Django shoots ’em dead, and then guns down the third as he tries to ride away. Big Daddy doesn’t take kindly to it  so he organizes a posse of bag-wearing rednecks (including Hill in a cameo role) which is among the movie’s funniest scenes – the riders can’t see very well in the improperly cut bags. However Dr. Schultz devises a plan that outfoxes the rednecks, which Django implements.

Django has earned his freedom and $75 in his share of the bounty and is eager to track down his wife, who was sold separately from him to a different plantation.

She has in fact been sold to Candyland, the fourth-largest cotton plantation in Mississippi and the home of young Calvin Candie, whose hobby is Mandingo wrestling – pitting slaves from different owners in battles to the death. Candie who isn’t above having his dogs tear slaves to pieces, is a seemingly diffident yet genteel sort on the surface but he has all sorts of bad seething below that surface. He is supported by his house slave Stephen (Jackson), a crotchety sort who jealously hordes his position and authority in the house; Leonide Moguy (Christopher), an oily lawyer and Mr. Pootch (Remar), a debonair but deadly bodyguard.

Django first must hone his  skills as a bounty hunter before taking on that bunch, and when he is finally ready in the spring he is quite the killer but he is up against some of the most ruthless, sadistic men in the South. Is Django more than a man?

Of course he is. This is a Quentin Tarantino mash-up and he is not only targeting Spaghetti Westerns but also Blaxploitation and B-movie revenge flicks from the 80s. Django harkens back to classic heroes from all of those genres (but particularly John Shaft whom Tarantino has said is his descendent; in fact, his wife’s slave name is Broomhilda von Schaft).

Foxx imbues Django with a quiet dignity, which is about what you’d expect. Django isn’t worldly but he’s bright; he learns quickly and while his voice rarely gets raised he carries himself with such self-assurance that it’s easy for him to convince white folks that he’s a free man. It’s not a flashy performance, but it’s a confident one and illustrates the growth that Foxx has made as an actor in just a few short years. In many ways this is an even better performance than his Oscar-winning turn in Ray but might not attract the attention in that regard not only because it’s so low-key but because the competition for Best Actor this year is so bloody fierce.

He has plenty of support though. Waltz, who achieved his breakout role in Inglourious Basterds for Tarantino, switches gears and is a good guy this time out, although he’s got a bit of a dark side. Here as Dr. Schultz, he is urbane, witty and erudite. He uses a lot of five dollar words that most of the people he deals with have not a clue what they mean. He smiles a lot, is a bit of a charmer and a flirt but is at his core a decent fellow who is repulsed from slavery and the vicious things that are done to the slaves.

Di Caprio is a serviceable villain; he doesn’t play villains often but when he does he can be as over-the-top as any and that’s what the role calls for; at one point in the movie Candie pounds a table in emphasis. Di Caprio hit the table so hard he cut his hand open. Tarantino refused to yell cut and the scene proceeded with Di Caprio’s hand bleeding and that’s the take that’s used in the movie. The intensity, as it always is with Di Caprio, is there.

Jackson also plays villains less often than heroes and like Di Caprio, is no stranger to over the top. This is a part tailor made for Jackson and he inhabits it. It’s not the part you’d think he’d play – Yessuh Massuh isn’t exactly his style – but when you think about it, who else would you cast in the role? As good as the talent is among African-American actors right now, none spring to mind when you think “who could play Steven properly?” Just SLJ and like the trooper that he is, he does it note-perfect. Of course, I’m not sure that Jackson would have taken a part like this for anybody other than Quentin Tarantino.

One of the plot elements is that the story of the movie is supposed to parallel that of the legend of Siegfried which it kind of does. Like the legend, the movie’s story is told really in three parts. Each part has certain parallels with the legend – and no, I’m not going to explain it to you here. Just be reassured that Waltz tells you what the story is at the beginning and by the end you think back and say to yourself “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah!” Far be it for me to remove the thrill of connecting the dots from you.

Now, the elephant in the room when it comes to this picture is the use of what has come to be called the “N” word. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that and I can understand it – it’s a word I don’t personally use and normally I don’t encourage its use. However, in this instance, Tarantino’s intent is to portray not only the physical degradation of the slaves but the mental and spiritual humiliation as well. The word was in wide use at the time for one thing and it wouldn’t be realistic to ignore it. I found that the first couple of times I heard it that it was kind of a shock, but after that I grew numb to it. Maybe that’s a point Tarantino is trying to make, but be warned that the word is used a lot and if it offends you, you might want to take that into consideration.

All of these things are fine by me but there are a few things that I do have to say that aren’t as positive. The movie is nearly three hours long; I’m guessing that about 20-30 minutes of it could have been cut without ruining the flow or continuity of the movie or disrupting the story. For example, there’s a scene near the end where Django is being transported to a brutal mine where he will be worked to death. How he escapes takes a good five to ten minutes; it’s a scene that under a more economical director could have been easily accomplished in under a minute. Of course, Tarantino is not known for his frugality (being kind of a gregarious sort of guy, that figures) but that kind of thing happens several times during the course of the film.

More unforgivably, the movie drags in places. Few if any write better dialogue than Tarantino but there are times when things just…drag. Too much talking. Not enough action. The directors of those movies Tarantino loves so much could let 15 minutes go by without so much as a word being spoken. Actions do speak louder than words and rarely is that so apparent as at the movies.

I was hoping that this would be one of the year’s ten best but it won’t make that list sadly. This isn’t one of Tarantino’s best. Plainly. And I’m sure that disappointment has probably brought down his rating a tad; if anyone else had directed this, I might well have given it more stars. At the end of the day though, it doesn’t measure up to his best works and that is part of your moviegoing experience – are your expectations being met. It’s not terribly fair that my expectations of a Tarantino film are so high but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. It’s a very good film. It’s just not a great one.

REASONS TO GO: Foxx, Waltz, di Caprio and Jackson are all at the top of their games. If you love Tarantino you’ll love this!

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Those who don’t like Tarantino will hate this. Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely graphic violence (i.e. when people get shot they get shredded with blood going everywhere), plenty of bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foxx rides his own horse, Cheetah, in the film during the bareback sequence.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch

SHOT IN THE NUTS LOVERS: Hopefully there aren’t a lot of you out there but if there are, there’s a whole lot of it going on in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Young @ Heart