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Rising up - 'The Birth of a Nation'

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Film brings the story of Nat Turner to the screen

I'm always leery of referring to any movie as 'important.' While there's no doubt that many significant events and issues have been addressed in the cinematic medium, there's something presumptuous and vaguely smug about throwing around that label.

However, one can't help but put that label on a film like 'The Birth of a Nation.' The movie written and directed by Nate Parker, who also stars tells the story of Nat Turner, leader of a failed slave uprising in the antebellum American South.

It's a story with which far too many are unfamiliar, the kind of story that gets glossed over in the majority of history classes. But Nat Turner deserves to be far more than a footnote; this film's mere existence is a major step in the right direction. And while there are numerous issues with the movie - both on-screen and off - 'The Birth of a Nation' tells a tale that needed to be told.

Nat (Parker) has been the property of the Turner family since he was born. A precocious child, he teaches himself to read, leading Turner family matriarch Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller, TV's 'American Crime') to give him lessons. Granted, it's the Bible and only the Bible, but they are lessons nevertheless. But Nat sees tragedy as well; his father is forced to flee after a bloody confrontation with a crew of slavecatchers led by the malignant Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley, TV's 'Preacher'), leaving Nat and his family behind.

Nat grows into a man working the cotton fields on the Turner plantation. He also serves as a sort of lay preacher for the rest of his enslaved brethren; his long-ago lessons never left him. Sam Turner (Armie Hammer, 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.') continues the family tradition of relatively benevolent rule over their slaves, but troubled economic times along with a not-insignificant drinking problem leaves Sam with some financial concerns.

The solution is to rent out Nat to neighboring plantations, where he might use his preaching of the word as a way to placate any unrest among the slaves. Essentially, Nat is asked to use the Gospels to convince his fellows that bondage is their proper place. Along the way, he sees the horrors of how these other owners treat those they consider to be less than human.

But it is when his own wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King, TV's 'How to Get Away with Murder') is brutally beaten and left for dead and the wife of another is given to one of Turner's guests to use as a plaything that Nat is left unable to reconcile his words and deeds any longer. He organizes an insurrection and puts together a plan in which his fellow slaves will rise up against their masters and earn their freedom through the same blood and violence used to keep them down.

It is brutal and horrible and ultimately futile.

I'll freely admit to the fact that I knew almost nothing about Nat Turner when I went into this film. I knew the name, I knew that he led a revolt of some sortand that was it. I didn't know when or where. I didn't know that he was a preacher or that he was driven to act not by what was done to him, but by the treatment of others. In a time of turmoil and unrest, a reminder of the sacrifices made by men like Nat Turner is indeed important.

And 'The Birth of a Nation' is definitely an important film. Turning this story into a movie that is credible both artistically and commercially is an impressive feat; no matter how you may feel about Nate Parker (whose personal controversies I won't be going into here, though I advise you to investigate them yourself) and the conflation of art and artist, you can't deny the significance of the movie that he has made.

But important doesn't equate to perfect. And there are plenty of issues with this film. There's a choppiness to the narrative that results in stretches that are sapped of their impact. And the holes in Parker's script lead to some execution issues in Parker's direction; there are some questionable scenic choices throughout choices that almost always serve to place misguided focus on Parker the actor. While Parker's passion undeniably drives the project and helps create a powerful undercurrent of engagement, the triple-threat nature of his involvement likely allowed some of these issues to be overlooked.

'The Birth of a Nation' offers a number of outstanding performances. Parker is mesmerizing at times as Nat Turner, finding the combination of love, faith and rage necessary to power the portrayal of such a complex figure. Hammer and Haley serve as the two sides of the Southern slavery coin; Hammer as one of the self-styled 'good' ones who treats his slaves relatively well, yet still ultimately viewing them as mere property, while Haley is the virulent, ugly face of active racism, believing slaves to be subhuman and little more than animals. Haley's performance in particular will churn your stomach.

'The Birth of a Nation' is brutal and sad and difficult to watch at times. However, it also shines a light on a dark time in our nation's history and on a story that too many of us know precious little about. Nate Parker's film is an imperfect one, but one that still very much warrants our attention.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:34

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