Movie Review: The Birth of a Nation (2016)

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” This Thomas Jefferson quotation from his Notes on the State of Virginia, which also appears on my favorite memorial in Washington, D.C., the Jefferson Memorial, prefaces and predisposes Nate Parker’s provocative movie about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

That the young filmmaker, whose picture was bought at a film festival by Fox Searchlight with great expectations only to be downgraded by recent disclosures about Parker’s past, casts the historic rebellion as God’s vengeance—religionists and atheists alike should note that Nat Turner’s God is vengeful—undercuts the true nature and power of Nat Turner’s story. The Birth of a Nation makes everything seem too pat.

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The two-hour film lacks the impact its topic, a preacher slave’s rebellion, deserves, leaving it well short of achieving the promise implied by its title. That said, Parker’s movie raises questions, provokes thoughts and contains powerful performances and images and hair-raising scenes.

Framed by an African mythology of wisdom, vision and leadership set by a tribal chief, screenwriter and director Parker’s story of the antebellum South begins in earnest with frolicking children named Turner—one slave child, one slavemaster’s child—in what becomes, or could have more fully become, a fascinating plot spiral about how slavery rots the life of both slave and slavemaster. The boys grow into Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and Nat Turner (Nate Parker). The white male goes from Nat’s childhood friend to defender while slowly turning to alcohol for comfort as the reality of owning his friend sets in. The black male goes from Samuel’s childhood friend and favored servant to rebel leader while slowly turning to religion for justifying his righteous wrath.

Both boys begin as innocents. Both become wrecked by slavery. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t dramatize every facet of their doomed relationship let alone do so in universal terms of its essential meaning, but it is there even if muted in power. It is one of many missed opportunities in this otherwise occasionally searing film, which is safe and uneven.

For example, the romance Nat Turner develops with his future wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King, ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder) follows predictable turns, lines and scenes. Yet when she’s attacked later in the film, an unseen depth of commitment is presumed to serve as a catalyst for full-scale revolt. Their relationship is more abbreviated than demonstrated, going from a kind of rescue to rehabilitation thanks to Nat Turner’s knowing, loving mother (Aunjanue Ellis, For Colored Girls) to a kind of gentleness that feels contrived as Parker’s performance veers from saccharine to seething. Cherry and Nat as a couple never go deep and take root.

This is an ongoing problem in The Birth of a Nation, which is sufficiently tense, gruesome and gripping given its subject matter. Important scenes have either been cut or not filmed and in either case there are gaps of what the audience should be seeing on screen. Some of what’s left off screen includes the murder of babies, which is part of Nat Turner’s legacy, and other heinous acts such as sexual assault. Smaller details, too, however, are left out of the movie. Among these are how Nat Turner, who was literate, used his knowledge to formulate his plan for an uprising as a means of leading his fellow slaves to freedom.

Surprisingly, and disappointingly, there is not a single scene of serious, point by point plotting of the rebellion. Instead, there are constant and overwrought scenic references to the landscape and its orientation to sunlight, which dovetails to what I take as Parker’s theme, with co-screenwriter Jean McGianni Celestin, for The Birth of a Nation: mass murdering slave as God’s prophet. Given Parker’s selective recreation of the historic insurrection, with its omission of deeper analysis of Turner’s motives other than his faith in God, the Bible and religion, and certainly he appears to have been a religious zealot, this is the meaning of the motion picture, which treats his rising from a whipping as God’s will.

Why Nat Turner chose to believe in God after he acquired the ability to read is as left undone as how he learned to ride a horse or master the details of planning a regional rebellion. The Birth of a Nation deals with the injustice of slavery in fragments of fast-cutting scenes, often half-shown while in progress, with Jackie Earle Haley as his most spine-chilling villain since his role as a sexual deviant in Little Children and Roger Guenveur Smith (Chi-Raq, Malcolm X) as a house slave who opposes the rebellion.

The style has the effect of leaving the most pressing questions, facts and details of the rebellion out of the picture. Slavery and Civil War-themed pictures such as Amistad, Lincoln, Glory and 12 Years a Slave, which are outstanding movies, laboriously yet deftly and often brilliantly dramatize key parts of history in terms of essentials. Escape from Sobibor put planning a slave rebellion at the center of the film, so it’s possible to capture the howling hurt and anger of oppression and the cold, hard facts of rebellion in cohesion. Here, adding drone-type shots of lingering sunsets and Nina Simone songs to the soundtrack comes at the expense of character development. Gabrielle Union’s character, for instance, is a pretty but wordless character who smiles and dances before her downfall.

This movie about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion fills its frames with harrowing images of acts of evil and acts of retribution. Set in Southampton, Virginia, and filmed in Savannah, Georgia, the South comes off as a miserable, rotten and unhappy place of muggy swamps, cotton fields and buzzing insects with drunken, lazy and sadistic white men lording over enslaved Africans and I think this much is true. Intentionally or not, Nate Parker depicts the South’s misery as a byproduct of slavery’s total failure in every sense including as an engine for sustained economic production and it’s clear that it’s not at all an example of capitalism, as has been claimed. An outstanding performance by Esther Scott as Nana, Nat Turner’s grandmother, adds to the story.

But in leaving out certain facts, centrally details of the rebellion, The Birth of a Nation suggests that this young slave, who freed himself and whose life ought to be studied with other freed slaves such as Solomon Northrup and Frederick Douglass, was fundamentally a man of faith with only an impulse to take vengeance as a vessel of a supernatural being. And, Nate Parker’s movie implies, to enter an afterlife and become a martyr. This might be true, though I doubt it. I suspect that the truth is mixed and that Nat Turner may have been motivated by secular thoughts, too.

The Birth of a Nation presents horrifying fragments in pictures that float but do not tether disturbing questions about good and evil and the confusing, death-inducing mixture of both. It simply depicts that Nat Turner acted on faith—obeying a religious text commanding that the enslaved who believes he is a messenger of God act without mercy—to go forth and slaughter a few of his oppressors and mostly the innocent in proximity. Then The Birth of a Nation leaves it at that, trivializing an influential and horrifying act of rebellion and reducing it, in today’s parlance, to “so, this happened”, brushing aside exactly what, how and why.

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

MV5BMjExMTEzODkyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTU4NTc4OQ@@._V1_SX214_Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, based on the book by Solomon Northrup, deposits us into slavery in the 19th century’s American South. It is an excellent example of the best type of cinematic naturalism, delivering characters to care about in an intricate and layered plot that offers much more to think about than whatever superficial slop Oprah‘s serving up. More than anything else, and there’s a lot of else with this Brad Pitt (World War Z) co-produced film, the movie takes ideas seriously and depicts slavery with honesty and candor.

Foremost, it is the story of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I first noticed in a 2005 Woody Allen picture), a free black man in the North. We see Solomon when he’s free in New York in 1841, a musician, husband and father. The driving force of 12 Years a Slave is not exactly the actor’s performance as Solomon, though it is very good. It is the undercurrent of life versus death – freedom versus slavery – in every frame, closeup and scene. The film, like its title, suggests both the injustice of slavery and the fact of its ultimate metaphysical insignificance in a thinking man’s life. By reducing slavery to its essentials, in shackles, chains and whiplashes, 12 Years a Slave captures its proper place in history and dramatizes it in the life of an individual.

The result is unforgettable. Tricked by a couple of dandies in Washington, DC, and illegally, subversively sold into slavery (by a cruel beast played by Paul Giamatti), Solomon wakes up in chains only to be confronted by a foul, backward creature who regards blacks as subhuman, a commonly held viewpoint in the South and much of the country at that time, drawn partly from erroneous biology. He is quickly warned by a fellow slave that “once in a slave state, there is only one outcome.” The wisdom of those words cashes in later, much later, when the chronic and constant fact of Solomon’s enslavement becomes clear in a long, gradual drain on his soul.

“Help me,” he whimpers out the window early upon enslavement. But he’s encased in brick and chains and there’s no one to listen or care. He’s imprisoned in the South, a wicked part of the world ruled by religion, tradition and stubborn hatred for progress, capitalism and industrialization. 12 Years a Slave does not frame the issue in those terms but it’s there in every scene of the South; the slow-minded, spewing contempt for any small step toward advancement of self-interest. The greasy-haired, toothless malcontents and overseers, the frigid bun-haired belles, even kind, gentle masters such as a man of ability (Benedict Cumberbatch) who praise the exceptional while adding that they suspect “no good will come of it.” They are each oppressors of man. In this case, Solomon.

12 Years a Slave grants no reprieve to evil, unlike Munich, Life is Beautiful and other appeasement and apologia in film. Solomon is traded, unloaded and enslaved over and over, from master to master, ending up with a drunk who alternates between Christianity and hedonism, played by Michael Fassbender. And, unlike Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the oppressed are treated and depicted with clarity as individuals, not as a collective. Their faces mark their time: the striking Patsy who serves her master and enrages his wife; each field slave – this is not about house slaves, represented by a fright of a person portrayed by Alfre Woodard – who look down and hope they don’t get noticed; the woman who stops to ponder a loss before drawing strength from singing about the river Jordan.

We see the roots of her sense of soul and how they spread out to reach and anchor other wounded men and women so they, too, can draw from what’s divine and instill in themselves a sense of life, not death. Death looms everywhere around them and it is not overdone or overstated, though certain scenes are of course by necessity graphic. Negro spirituals fuel the yearning for freedom that lies beneath slave scars inside their minds. That’s part of Solomon’s story, too. When one of the slaves drops dead in the fields, he is suddenly aware of the years – lost, irreplaceable time – and he feels it deeply, groaning along for the first time, a free man Northerner who’s become a slave down South knowing that his life is not his own and his time is expiring. Soon, he’s walking slower, less proudly, and he reaches the point any man would: hurt and broken and deprived of what he loves: the freedom to create and make his music. 12 Years a Slave dramatizes how we are enslaved by our slavemasters above all in what we love. How the masters take the good – the stroke of a finger on flesh, or a pen on paper, or a bow against a string – and turn it against the good and into something ugly, dark and monstrous.

“Let me weep for my children,” says one slave who’s been ripped from the arms of her family in a lesson Solomon must learn for himself. Whether he does makes 12 Years meaningful as well as powerful. The first emotion we witness Solomon feeling is anger in the form of frustration. Whether enslavement is caused by irrational views of blacks, whites, men, women, gays, straights, the wealthy, middle class or poor and especially the individual, the West needs more anger at enslavement. The companion emotion here is sadness, and the black men making this film finally have given us a character who’s a black man that experiences grief and anger in the proper context so we can see that real heroes express emotion based on reason. This is rarely grasped let alone depicted. Solomon is pre-judged for the color of his skin. He is envied for being intelligent. He is hated for being good. This is what makes 12 Years a Slave universal.

What happens when one is free before being enslaved? This is the question, similar to the question of being born sighted then blinded versus being born blind, at the movie’s core. Who can’t relate to being taken from liberty into some type of slave state? 12 Years a Slave shows us a man as he comes to slavery in its most brutal form, how he struggles, chokes and breaks, and, facing a bearded, Bible-thumping monster similar to Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, flinches in pain and does not submit. Part of this movie’s achievement is its subtlety in dramatizing slavery’s insidiousness: you are not in charge of yourself; you are owned yet you are human so you cannot in reality be owned.

The contradiction between living under dictatorship and man’s essential nature powers each major scene. For example, when left dangling from a tree with barely any breath for life, one man’s toes clutching at the mud are all that supports his life while no one – black or white, slave or master – dares to break tradition, speak, step forward and liberate the man from bondage. This scene dramatizes that slavery puts one at the mercy of depending on others, while alienating the others from helping the one who stands – or hangs – alone. There are other scenes. They remind the 21st century audience that, as life hangs in the balance, brutes, slaves and mobs think nothing of it.

When one slave begs another for euthanasia, and is refused on the grounds that an act of mercy is undue its intended recipient, the act of mercy which results has the film’s most profound effect. Men and their spirits can be broken. 12 Years a Slave shows us why. When man is no longer free to act, his innermost thoughts can turn to nothing so they are broken and unrealized. Instead, idle thoughts turn to cynicism, which is its own kind of death. 12 Years a Slave, praised as a book by the great republican abolitionist Frederick Douglass, referenced and credited as great in the studio’s press notes, dramatizes one who refuses to submit to death. He doesn’t do it by prayer. He doesn’t do it by brute force. He does it by realizing the meaning and power of two words – I want – in pursuit of his own life. That which awaits him after 12 years as a slave, and how he purges himself of agony and injustice, is the moral of this remarkable tale.

Fox Searchlight’s 12 Years a Slave is being released in theaters on October 18th. The picture also features Brad Pitt as a freethinker, Paul Dano as one that lurks out there still in the life of every black man, and, in one of the movie’s best performances, Sarah Paulson as a slavemistress who pre-figures the 20th century’s archetypical feminist. Yes, you will know why the caged bird sings, to paraphrase poet Maya Angelou, after seeing this movie. You will also see and hear (in piercing sound effects) a more realistic depiction of the history of America’s black people. By recreating the truth about one who was ripped from liberty and stolen into enslavement, filmmakers made a movie which honors its freethinking author and should be seen by any one who’s free to think.