The Birth of a Nation

October 17, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

What separates this film from the one it will most likely be compared to, “12 Years a Slave,” is the relative restraint that director, writer and lead, Nate Parker, brings to the story. I think there is a fully understandable tendency to show overt, almost garish, moral outrage when talking about slavery; there is a sort of eloquent indignation that leaks from every moment of a film like “12 Years.” That is not to say that Parker isn’t indignant. Make no mistake, this is a rageful film but it is also graceful and, in parts, almost lyrical. Parker builds his story and his characters slowly. In this fictionalized account of the Nat Turner rebellion, Turner is a soft spoken and timid man. At least at first. Parker plays him beautifully as shy, awkward and endearing. The audiences learns to genuinely like him and to like the family that owns him. One of Parker’s strokes of genius was to make that family so likable, making what eventually happens that much more upsetting. While all the actors did a fine job, the core of the film is Parker’s performance as Turner. The actor/director has been the focus of much controversy recently because of allegations made against him in the past that have resurfaced. I do not wish to weigh in on those allegations, other than to say that, if we can appreciate Michael Jackson for his skills, despite allegations against him (true or not), then I think we can extend Nate Parker the same courtesy. Parker is a natural talent with an incredibly expressive face. The backbone of this film was watching his timidity turn to rage and then action. But, even as the leader of the rebellion, he never lost the haunted look and hunched shoulders of a man who had seen too much horror to ever find peace. It was a remarkable performance. Turner was a preacher and his longest speeches were all Bible quotations. In many ways, this was a deeply religious work as Nate Parker (the director) and Nat Turner (the character) explored the uneasy balance between pro and anti-slavery scripture. The reading of scripture frequently punctuates the film and brings a sort of spiritual cadence to this work. I was acutely aware that this was not a film made for me but, rather, for the deeply religious African American community, many of whom in my audience called out and engaged with the film as though they were listening to a sermon at church. And, perhaps, they were in some ways. Parker takes some liberties with the story to reinforce an image of Turner as a Christ figure, but what historical film doesn’t take liberties? Parker named his film “The Birth of a Nation,” which is the exact same name as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist screed. In doing so, he lays his claim on history. He calls out Griffith’s lie and reveals, at America’s core, what forces are really responsible for our birth. In the intense scenes of violence against Blacks, it is impossible to not be mindful of our streets today. Unarmed Black men shot on the streets without cause; which era does a scene like that belong to? And, perhaps the real message in a film like this one is, if we do the same things now as we did then, why are we surprised that Nat Turner’s rage still lives on in Nate Parker and in so many others?




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