Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Tony Espinosa, Jayson Warner Smith, Jason Stuart
Written by: Nate Parker, based on a story by Jean McGianni Celestin, Nate Parker
Directed by: Nate Parker
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity
Running Time: 120
Date: 10/07/2016

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Tide Turner

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

With the title of his new movie The Birth of a Nation which opens Friday, writer, director, and actor Nate Parker deliberately evokes D.W. Griffith's 1915 film of the same name.

It's arguably Parker's boldest move. Griffith's silent-era release was a phenomenon, changing not only the way that people looked at and thought about movies, but also, through its sheer cinematic power, inspiring (perhaps indirectly, perhaps not) a new wave of racism, reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan.

Parker's choice of title suggests that he has something up his sleeve, something he wants us to chew on. But, at the same time, his movie takes the low road.

While The Birth of a Nation is visceral, rousing, and eye-opening, it employs simplistic, primitive tactics. It's unclear if these were designed to whip up an audience into a froth, or if they are merely the work of a raw amateur — or both.

Yet for every ludicrous device — a weapon just out of reach during a fight scene — Parker provides haunting, disquieting images that linger.

The Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave that, in 1831, led an uprising that led to the deaths of some sixty whites. Even if Parker's writing and directing are not without flaw, he gives a lead performance above reproach.

Encouraged to read the Bible from a young age, Nat grows to be a natural preacher. His cotton planation master Samuel (Armie Hammer) takes takes Nat to other plantations to preach to other slaves. Nat is enraged by the cruelty he sees on these trips, but holds his tongue.

After his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is brutalized by a sadistic white man (Jackie Earle Haley), and after a fellow slave's wife is given to a white guest as a plaything, Nat begins to sow the seeds of rebellion.

In essence, this The Birth of a Nation is a big revenge picture, enhanced by Parker's thin portrayal of white characters: they are all unwashed, drunk, mean, and have bad teeth. Yet, after a century of black stereotypes in films, is Parker's use of white stereotypes justified?

The result, then, is an eagerness to see these nasty bigots pay dearly; the film stirs up hatred against the haters. If this movie is an Oscar contender, it's far closer to Braveheart than it is to 12 Years a Slave.

But, whether or not The Birth of a Nation will inspire discussion, whether it's a worthy thesis, is not clear. Certainly, most of the current conversation seems to be centered on Parker's 1999 accusation of rape, and subsequent acquittal. Maybe this brutal, powerful, flawed movie is about all we're equipped to handle right now.

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