Monday, November 07, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Film: The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union
Director: Nate Parker
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

As you may remember, it was roughly a year ago that I decided to finally break down and see one of the last remaining AFI films that I'd never seen, 100 years after it came out: I viewed The Birth of a Nation.  For those who are curious, the link is there, but I left both impressed that such a feat could be mounted 100 years ago (some of the battle scenes are unbelievable), but saddened that one of the most significant films in American history is so deeply steeped in racist beliefs and tropes.  One of the best tricks about Nate Parker's latest film is the way he re-appropriates that title with a film that is far more accurate and challenges those assumptions.  It's a provocative trick (as the film is not in any way a remake of the Griffith picture), but is a challenging look at the hardships of slaves that they had to face every day, and a reminder of how important accuracy in cinema is.

(Real life doesn't need spoiler alerts) The film is a rather long tale of Nat Turner (or seemingly long-it only runs about two hours), and his journey from being a literate slave to being the leader of a major rebellion in the south predating the Civil War.  Parker takes on quadruple-duty as writer/producer/director/actor, and plays the main character, whom we see gradually find love with his wife Cherry (King), and eventually see driven to protest by the way that his power with the Bible is exploited to try and get neighboring slaves to stay subservient to their masters.  The film follows, in detail, his rebellion against his owners and the harsh surroundings that slaves like Turner were forced to live in during this era.

The movie's most moving attributes are the ways that Turner shows an insight into this world, in a way we haven't seen anywhere, not even in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave.  The film follows Turner as he goes from poor farmhouse to poor farmhouse, frequently featuring slaves in inhuman conditions that will literally have you wincing away.  There is a scene with a hotbox late in the film that almost made me vomit, knowing how real (and how much worse) this was in real-life compared  to the picture.  Parker's well-guided by knowing how to use light in these sequences, giving us too much of it occasionally in ways that I found quite interesting.  I don't know much about the cinematographer here, but he should be commended, as this is arguably the movie's most intriguing perspective.

The film itself has flaws, however, and it may be the fact that we see little inside the world or goals of Turner.  It doesn't help that, while he might have a vision as a director, Nate Parker is not a strong actor.  We don't have the obvious reminder of his acting skills like in Beyond the Lights (where he's opposite the intensely impressive Gugu Mbatha-Raw), since no one here is a standout like she is, but it doesn't add much to his story when he makes Turner so unknowable, and really is more interested in shocking the audience rather than investigating some of his characters (the same can be said for Armie Hammer's Samuel, who is also vastly underwritten).  The movie itself is watchable, and a forthright film, but the acting and writing hold it back from being the masterpiece it's clearly hoping to be, and there's nothing really accentuating it in a way that salvages that lack of character growth and thespian skills.

The film is likely to be a part of the Oscar conversation, but Parker's probably not going to be an easy sell with the Academy, who doesn't want to invite too much controversy when they could easily go with other movies.  Do you think that it will end up a nominee, or Parker in particular, or has the rose left this film too quickly?  Where do you think he goes next with his career?  Share your thoughts below in the comments.

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