Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Birth Of A Nation: A bloody, brutal history lesson

The Birth Of A Nation Review
This is going to be a review of "The Birth of A Nation." Not the 1915 silent film made by D.W. Griffith. Something that is still considered one of the most important films ever made. Yeah, it may be a staunch look at the attitudes of our country at the time. But one fellow critic referred to the film as "The American 'Triumph of the Will,'" which is, quite frankly, the best description of that film. I've seen only mere scenes of that film, and that was enough for me. What I will be reviewing tonight is the new film about the Nat Turner rebellion; written, directed and starring Nate Parker. Nate Parker is an actor I have enjoyed for awhile, and I always like to see actors I respect make the jump to the director's chair.

Fist off, many people may still have "12 Years A Slave" stuck in your head. That's fair, that film came out in 2013, its still a fairly young film. So, how does "The Birth Of A Nation" differ from "12 Years A Slave?" Well the later was about an anomaly, a tale of how a free black man survived his worst nightmare and what affect he had on history moving forward. "The Birth Of A Nation" is more of a starring contest within the day in the life of slave owners and the slaves themselves. We get the best look at just how horrifying it was to live in the south back then. The film examines how such an awful system broke the people trapped in it, and how bloody revolution became the only option of surviving through such a system. This also happens to be the story of Nat Turner. A slave and preacher who came to realization that rebellion could change the world, and he turned on his masters, got a group of slaves together and killed 60 white people in the south. 

In actuality, "The Birth Of A Nation" is different from a lot of movies about slavery. No matter how brutal and violent many slavery movies are, there is always some kind out for the audience. There is always that one good slave owner that white audiences can relate to. Nate Parker cleverly doesn't give his audience an out in his movie. The south is an ugly, wallowing place in "The Birth Of A Nation" and even the least racist white characters in the film are people you can't even relate too, just because of how normal slavery is painted through the white characters' eyes. Nate Parker takes the audience by the face and smears its face in the harsh reality of the time it is set in. This makes many of the films themes more believable and more emotional.

How does Nate Parker's film stack up against other slavery movies? Well, that's a tough question. I think Nate Parker delivers an incredible lead performance. He is successfully guided by an fantastic supporting cast, including Armie Hammer, Jackie Earl Haley, Gabrielle Union,  Aja Naomi King, Colman Domingo, and Penelope Ann Miller. Parker works with a huge host of collaborators that make moments in this film intense and brutally beautiful. However, I couldn't help but think throughout watching this film that I was watching a novice director making his first feature. Even though Nat Turner's slave rebellion was short-lived, the two-hour running time feels quite brief. I think Parker could have benefitted from making the film longer, drawing out certain scenes. There was a slapdash quality to certain moments in this film that deserved emotional heft. There are moments that feel like they are aiming to be epic, but fall short. There were also moments that I feel needed more time and work to breathe, the film feels like its constantly in a race with itself, and I feel that affected the outcome.

Here's the thing; a directorial debut for anybody rarely becomes known as a masterpiece. Any writer and director needs time to build and nurture their voice. For a first time director, "The Birth of A Nation" is a frantically stunning motion picture. It is full of powerful moments. It is brought to life by a stellar group of actors. Its a history lesson that is also a very personal movie for the director, and it also kind of ties into social events today. Parker gets so much right as a first timer that its hard to admit that a great movie is getting away from him. But "The Birth of A Nation" is evidence that once Nate Parker makes his masterpiece, its going to blow our minds completely. 


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