The Birth of a Nation (2016)

nationDirector: Nate Parker

Screenwriter: Nate Parker

Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, and Jackie Earle Haley

The American slave narrative is perhaps the most important historical literary genre to ever emerge. These narratives did more to reverse the tide of the American slavery institution than any politician, public speaker, or legislation ever did. The first-hand accounts of the horrors of slavery introduced an increasingly ignorant American population to the indecent, inhuman, and insane practices that destroyed the lives of nearly 13 million Africans over a period of about 350 years. The importance of this genre certainly explains American cinema’s fascination. Thousands of movies exist that document various aspects of this tumultuous time in American history, and one such film that is also widely considered to mark the birth of modern American cinema was a 1915 film titled, The Birth of a Nation. This film was hugely successful in its day, but it was also moderately controversial. Over the years, its controversy has only risen due to the film’s inclusion of white men in blackface playing Black characters and the heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, the film was a technical achievement and sent director D.W. Griffith off to a successful career in Hollywood. Now, 100 years later, we have another film titled The Birth of a Nation, and it is by no means an accident. Writer/Director Nate Parker looks to not only give the cinematic treatment to the story of Nat Turner, but also use this story to symbolically update antiquated ideas by deliberately sharing its title with the 1915 film. Parker is more successful at one of these goals than the other.

The Birth of a Nation opens in the early 1800s where a young Nathaniel Turner (Tony Espinosa), born into slavery survives the day-to-day life on the Turner Plantation in Southampton County, Va. Nathaniel is mostly shielded from the real nastiness of slavery as he befriends young Samuel Turner (Griffin Freeman), son of plantation owners Benjamin (Danny Vinson) and Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). Elizabeth even takes Nat in for reading lessons and introduces him to the Bible, which would eventually inspire him to preach. However, as Nat (now played by Nate Parker) and Sam (now played by Armie Hammer) grow up on the plantation, the divisions of White and Black lives becomes increasingly clear and by the time Sam inherits the plantation, the division is crystal. By the late 1820s, times are tougher on plantations. Plantation owners have become ruthless towards their slaves and the mistreatment and cruelty begins to take its toll on plantation productivity. Things are marginally better on the Turner plantation, but Sam can see the writing on the wall.  When a white preacher, Tom Proctor (E.T. Brantley) tells Sam he can make some extra cash by shepherding a Black preacher like Nat around to nearby plantations to preach submission and dutiful service to slaves, it might improve production and put more money in Sam’s pocket. These excursions provide starkly different revelations to Sam and Nat. Sam sees the responsibility of plantation owners to be hard and fierce, while Nat sees the disgusting and barbaric evil that is being experienced by so many slaves. This division quickly escalates the conflict between Nat and Sam. Sam begins to implement some of the practices he sees other owners using on their slaves all while developing a pretty strong relationship with the bottle. Meanwhile, Nat is disgusted and horrified by what he sees and is even more wrathful over his role in perpetuating it. This along with Nat’s desire to protect his family including his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and mother Esther (Gabrielle Union) from escalating danger prompts him to organize and plan the now historic and infamous Southampton Insurrection.

The Birth of a Nation is very successful at its portrait of Nat Turner. Other characters, on the other hand are left relatively flat and underdeveloped. Furthermore, Nate Parker is excellent in the role of Turner. It is clear that he has studied Turner and has taken his story to heart; the performance is drenched in passion and power. Parker’s off-the-screen controversy certainly does cast a shadow over the project, and it adds to the long complicated discussion about whether it’s important to separate the art from the artist. The subject matter does not necessarily relate to Parker’s rape accusations and subsequent suicide of the victim, but it can affect the way a viewer perceives Parker’s performance as a man searching for righteousness in an unjust society.

Controversy aside, the film is flashy, bold, and gut-wrenching. There are some questionable pacing choices in the film, and at the end while haunting, the film does feel less penetrating and substantial than others of its kind. Obvious comparisons will be drawn between The Birth of a Nation and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. While each one has its merits, what makes 12 Years a Slave so much better is its rawness, lack of melodrama, and depth. The Birth of a Nation, while compelling is not quite at the level of allegory and complexity that Steve McQueen achieved with 12 Years. The best thing about The Birth of a Nation is easily Parker’s performance. It’s too early to talk Oscar, but he’d be a solid candidate in the early conversation for sure. B

The Birth of a Nation is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours.

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Sully

sullyDirector: Clint Eastwood

Screenwriter: Todd Komarnicki

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, and Laura Linney

When the FX series American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson and the subsequent ESPN documentary OJ: Made in America came out earlier this year, many wondered if anyone would watch them. The events detailed in these shows happened only 20 years ago and they were so overtly covered by the media that many wondered, “What’s left to tell?”  The same can be said about the announcement for the film Sully, a film based on the “Miracle on the Hudson” where Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed a commercial aircraft on the Hudson River with no casualties. And the events of this film took place only 8 years ago!

What happened with the OJ Simpson programs was rather surprising. People watched. Lots of people. And awards upon awards were laden upon these projects. The reason being that creative measures and expert storytelling were combined with strong performances and new information to create an emotive project that stood for more than simply a retreading of public knowledge.  Fortunately, Clint Eastwood’s film detailing Sullenberger’s story follows suit by avoiding pointless exposition and crafting a deeply watchable and at times powerfully evocative depiction of American heroism in the face of insurmountable odds.

Tom Hanks plays Sullenberger, nicknamed Sully, a commercial pilot with over 40 years of experience in the air and over a million passengers safely delivered. The film opens post-event with a shaken Sullenberger preparing for a hearing with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) who believe Sullenberger may have been negligent in his decision to not return to LaGuardia Airport. Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are holed up in a Marriott hotel in a surreal twist of fate where on one hand Americans are celebrating their heroism and on the other, they are being investigated for endangering 155 passengers aboard the plane.

Sully is not a biopic. It is based upon Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and focuses almost entirely on the events of January 15, 2009 and the subsequent investigation.  Bits of ‘Sully’s’ past are sprinkled throughout, but the film’s main objective is to feature the tremendous fortune that results from having the right people performing the right jobs. Time is a major motif in the film, making outstanding use of factual evidence to show us just how much can happen in a short amount of time – for better or for worse. Hanks plays Sullenberger with quiet confidence, and Eastwood crafts his story with intensity and enlightenment. The effects in the plane crash scenes are second to none, and at a svelte 96 minute running time, the film clips along at a swift pace. One criticism on the film would be its handling of Sullenberger’s wife Lorraine, played by Laura Linney.  The film holds her at arm’s length and only features her in reactionary mode on the phone with Sully or as a way to illustrate the invasiveness of the media on the Sullenbergers’ daily lives. Linney joins a long list of good actresses cast in good films as wives who are written as screenplay tools to manipulate emotion.  Think Helen Hunt in another Hanks film, Cast Away. This is becoming a rather sad state of things, and is only highlighted by a scene during the credits where the real Lorraine Sullenberger gives a tearful speech to the survivors of Flight 1549 about how these survivors continue to send Christmas and greeting cards to them every year. This little moment in the credits gives more depth, heart, and life to who she is than anything Laura Linney does in the film.

Sully is a solid film delivering its message and entertainment as effectively as Sullenberger’s miraculous water landing on the Hudson.  Like it’s protagonist, the film showcases a couple of the right men for the job (as well as the right woman for a job that wasn’t there). A testament to superlative acting and creative filmmaking that breathes freshness into a story so recently and so publicly told. B+

Sully is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes.