Saturday, October 8, 2016

Review: The Birth of a Nation

I do not own the above image. Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures.  All Rights Reserved.

            In 15 years of going to the movies, I’ve had a single dream: watching a movie in a theatre by myself.  I’ve come close many times usually with an elderly couple coming in during the previews.  It finally happened this week but never in a million years would I have thought it would have happened during an opening night showing.  And fulfilling that dream wasn’t the most exciting thing to happen me in that theatre that night.  It turns out the movie I saw all by myself was absolutely marvelous.
            Nate Parker (star, director & co-writer) decides right off the bat to make THE BIRTH OF A NATION a personal, artistic motion picture.  The emphasis is not on Nat Turner’s unsuccessful slave rebellion but on our hero and the birth of his rebellion.  This is an up-close look at one slave & his experience as a pawn pastor for the white man and his reaction after reaching his breaking point.  Nat has to appear with multiple dimensions and not just motivated by his faith & treatment as a slave.  Nat finds inspiration through love found in the slave trade.  His love for Cherry is beautifully chronicled in both short-ish montages & conversations.  Two of their scenes together stand out: Their first, full true encounter in the plantation’s front yard is like a scene out of the best romantic movies yet is so natural here.  But their real powerhouse scene is their conclusion.  I won’t spoil it but their final scene is one of those magical emotionally & cinematically perfect moments that don’t come around often enough.
            Nat’s faith journey is just as emotional.  Taught to read by his master’s wife, he is taken from plantation to plantation to preach.  His “ah-ha” moment when we see his face as he tells his fellows slaves that being obedient to their owners will get them to the promised land hits you in the gut.  Nat’s breaking point, in which he talks back to his young master by quoting the Bible, and its aftermath perfectly summarizes the theme of the movie: Religion is a weapon of hope & fear and the vicious hypocrisy between the classes & races use of it is forever evident.  Never before has a movie like this been so timely.  There are also a few “tribal” scenes that take place in the woods that convey that Nat is some sort of spiritual figure, successfully turning him into the chosen savior of his people.
            Nate Parker knows his way around a camera considering this is his directorial debut.  There are sprawling shots of the pre-Civil War American South that creates a “prisoner in paradise” atmosphere, as if the movie needed to be more torturous.  His selective use of extreme close-ups gives each of them the appropriate emotional kick.  There are a few scenes of slave brutality, just enough to get the idea of what they went through.  But TBOAN is far from being the torture & misery porn that 12 YEARS A SLAVE was three years ago.  His direction of the mostly non-household name actors worked like a charm.  Everyone from the never better Armie Hammer as his owner to virtually unknown Aja Naomi King as Cherry to the reliably sinister Jackie Earle Haley as the leader of the slave patrol brought their A-game to the set.
            THE BIRTH OF A NATION is the African-American version of BRAVEHEART.  Some will see this as an insult.  Why?!  Both are emotional tragically heartwarming stories of oppression & resistance, war & love, despair & hope with a little more faith & artistry thrown in the newer feature.  Nate Parker, despite his checkered past, has created something that should be cherished & celebrated.