Saturday, October 8, 2016

Fox Searchlight Film Review - The Birth of a Nation

By choosing the title The Birth of A Nation and making a film about the bloodiest slave uprising in U.S. history Nate Parker ensured that his film would peak curiosity, attract controversy and detractors while sparking a large amount of interest. Parker's film released a century after D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation in which the Klu Klux Klan are the heroes with white actors in blackface the negro villains sees that script flipped in version 2.0.

Based on a true story Nate Turner played in youth by Tony Espiona then Parker himself. Is the Baptist preacher who led an 1831 slave rebellion that took 60 slave owner's lives leading to retaliation that left 200 slaves dead. The events are graphic, brutal and horrific as Nate witnesses   increasingly dehumanizing acts of degradation of his people on a preaching tour meant to quell rumblings of revolt that's lucrative to his master Shawn Turner (Armie Hammer). The more he sees the more he's compelled to switch his interpretation and preaching of the bible building towards defiance. The narrative presents elements of African traditions as the main characters grand parents generation were born in Africa. It also contains hints of Bravehart where the Lord / Master can bed the wife of a surf/slave. A violent rebellion is lead by a charismatic orator /leader on horseback that suffers a predictable fate then his remains are brutalized as a warning to future usurpers.

Cinematographer Elliot Davis' provides the piece's authentic look. The shots of the morning light over the seeming endless fields of cotton along with the spellbinding night time scenes fuelled by lantern light against the background of grandiose plantation houses put the viewer squarely in the early 19th century American south. Parker serves as writer, director, lead actor and producer for the film. It's intriguing to watch his direction of the scenes that he's in contemplating the level of coverage especially of himself that could be key in the editing process.  The stories rhythmic pacing features two excellent transitions one in the cotton fields to introduce Nate Turner and the second to jump forward from Nate's time to the American Civil War.

Parker assembled a dynamic cast for the production led by Aja Naomi King as Cherry a slave bought by Nate's master Armie Hammer at the formers urging showing obvious signs of physical and mental abuse grows to be Nate's love and wife. Penelope Anne Miller gives her best performance in years as Shawn's mother who teaches Nate to read and encourages him to be a preacher. Turner's other duties for the film do not detract from his role as lead actor on screen. Jackie Earle Haley is terrifying as Raymond Cobb the local Sheriff and slave patroller dispensing swift justice at night to runaway slaves or by day to slaves that are out of range of their plantation.

The Birth of A Nation is an important story that recounts an American historical event from a non traditional perspective. It's an instant where slaves organized banded together took action to taste freedom even if it was for a brief moment. The subject matter is topical today given the current racial unrest and tension in the United States.  The ensemble cast do not take a wrong step supported by an evenly paced narrative that could be viewed as a too violent for some but those scenes are necessary to accurately tell the condition of the time and the series of events that lead to the uprising.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Birth of a Nation | Nate Turner | U.S.A. | 2016 | 120 Minutes.

Tags: Biography, Preacher, Virginia, Plantation, Cotton, Slavery, Slave Patrol, Hunger Strike, Rape, Rebellion, Raid, Torches, Axes, Knives, U.S. Army.

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