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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The Lone Ranger

ImageIn this cinematic summer for baby boomers, two classic childhood heroes have been reborn on the big screen.  Both Superman and The Lone Ranger were developed into radio shows and comic books in the 1930s, and they would then go on to have their heydays in the 1940s and 1950s with popular TV shows.  It appears popular culture’s climate is having a nostalgic moment as origin stories of beloved heroes of the past are being introduced to a new generation of viewers, and so far so good.

For The Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski teams up with Johnny Depp for the fifth time after three Pirates films and 2011’s Rango.  It was the surprising success of the latter film that perhaps explains the evolution of their latest project.  The days of major box office success for the Western genre have all but ridden off into the sunset.  However, Rango, an animated film starring Johnny Depp as a pet chameleon who ends up in a lawless, desert outpost, legitimized that the genre may be on a resurgence and that kids may be a prime audience.  When included with 2010’s True Grit and 2012’s Django Unchained, three of the top four grossing westerns of all time were released between 2010 and 2012 demonstrating a rebirth of interest in the genre for both adults and kids for the first time in over 20 years.  Thus, Disney’s The Lone Ranger represents an inevitable attempt to get those two audiences together.  But is the film good enough to do it?

All in all, yes it is.  The Lone Ranger follows an ex-Texas ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), and his Indian friend, Tonto (Johnny Depp), as they try to exact justice in the American Old West.  The film begins in 1933, and is told in flashback to a young boy by an elderly Tonto, an odd choice of narrative structure.  We learn that Reid is the older brother to legendary lawman Dan Reid.  Dan’s pistol packing ways sharply contrast with John’s educated, John Locke inspired attitude towards law, justice, and government.  When Dan invites John to come along on a manhunt for escaped convict Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), an ambush leaves John clinging to life and crushing his perspective of what he thought would be a more civilized West.  John’s savior comes in the form of Tanto who saves his life and joins him on a renewed quest for justice.

The story has all of the makings of a classic western adventure, but it does hit a few snags.  Hammer and Depp are excellent and their exchanges are fun and entertaining.  Initially, it feels an odd choice casting Depp in the role of Reid’s Indian companion, and given his introduction as an elderly Tonto, I was quite skeptical.  However, Depp’s charm comes through, and he treats the role with respect and charisma.  Verbinski knows his way around an action scene and some of the railroad stuff is exciting and well-produced.  The first half of The Lone Ranger develops the origin of the character and plays out as a well-crafted western.  Filmed on location in the picturesque and renowned Monument Valley, Arizona, the film looks and feels authentic.  Additionally, the climax is a tremendously entertaining sequence that will have crowds smiling and cheering.  However, the film does makes two nearly unforgivable mistakes that do negatively affect the film’s overall reception.  First, Verbinki, known for the more-is-better approach, stretches the story out for an unnecessary two and a half hours bringing the plot to ludicrous scenarios like Mexican stand-offs and ridiculous ways to aim guns at people but never pull a trigger.  This type of film does not have the substance to withstand this type of running time, and while the film clearly nods to classic westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, it is hardly complex enough to demand this type of attention.  Second, like Man of Steel, a franchise is clearly in the works here and much of the greatness that is The Lone Ranger is overtly left for future installments.  For most of the film, the “mysterious masked man” is nothing but a bumbling buffoon cutting his teeth in silly situations.  The confident seeker of justice and serial adventurer is yet to come.  Nonetheless, the climax is a welcomed payoff that almost erases the bad taste left by these errors, and the score and taglines are used sparingly and effectively.  Fans of the original should be pleased and new fans will be made, kemosabeB-

The Lone Ranger is rated PG-13 and as mentioned above has a running time of 2 hours and 29 minutes!  A decent supporting cast includes Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, and Barry Pepper.  After the initial credits start an extended scene closes them, but this scene is more symbolic than enduring and does not culminate into anything major.