‘Birth of a Na­tion’ bluntly tells tale of Nat Turner

Malta Independent - - CINEMA - AP Film Writer Lind­sey Bahr

“The Birth of a Na­tion “has had more ex­pec­ta­tions placed on it than any movie could rea­son­ably bear.

When the film about Nat Turner and his 1831 slave re­bel­lion pre­miered at the Sundance Film Fes­ti­val, it was held up, un­fairly or not, as ev­ery­one’s great hope to save us from an­other year of #Os­carsSoWhite. Some hand­ful of months later, it be­came rep­re­sen­ta­tive of some­thing else when the fo­cus shifted to the then lit­tle-known fact that its cre­ator and star, Nate Parker, had a past that in­volved not only a rape al­le­ga­tion, but the even­tual sui­cide of the ac­cuser.

Nei­ther is a fair lens through which to judge “The Birth of a Na­tion.” Com­pli­cated peo­ple have and will con­tinue to make films. We’ll all have to rec­on­cile with that in our own way. #Os­carsSoWhite, mean­while, will never be solved with just one film — and cer­tainly not by the first to screen after an­other year of ho­moge­nous nom­i­nees.

The fact is, “The Birth of a Na­tion” is a fine and promis­ing de­but from Parker, who also cowrote and pro­duced. It also feels very much like a first film, too, un­able to reach the lofty artistry that it’s striv­ing for in jux­ta­pos­ing unimag­in­able hu­man in­jus­tices with both lyri­cal spir­i­tu­al­ity and shock­ing vi­o­lence.

Parker fol­lows Nat Turner from child­hood to his death at age 31. Turner was hanged for the Vir­ginia re­bel­lion. Un­der the cloak of night, he and his fel­low slaves went house to house slaugh­ter­ing ev­ery man, woman and child who had a white com­plex­ion. It lasted 48 hours and over 50 peo­ple were killed. The in­ci­dent was an early cat­a­lyst to the Civil War.

Out of ne­ces­sity, “The Birth of a Na­tion” takes a lot of lib­er­ties with truths and un­knowns about Nat Turner, flesh­ing out the skele­ton of what the history books tell us.

In­stead of hav­ing Nat be­ing sold a num­ber of times through­out his life, Parker keeps him with the same owner — the Turner fam­ily — through­out. Ma­tri­arch El­iz­a­beth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) takes a shine to Nat and helps to teach him how to read. While that part is true, keep­ing him with the same fam­ily al­lows Parker to show a young Nat (Tony Espinosa) be­ing friends with his even­tual mas­ter Samuel (Ar­mie Ham­mer) from youth. He also gives Nat a life­long neme­sis in a slave tracker (Jackie Earle Ha­ley), who, by the end of Nat’s life, will have run down his fa­ther and hurt his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King).

Ul­ti­mately, it makes “The Birth of a Na­tion” less a good faith at­tempt at re­con­struct­ing Nat Turner’s life lead­ing up to the re­bel­lion and more a styl­ized fable, loosely rooted in an ex­tra­or­di­nary true story.

Parker does, through a skill­fully in­ter­nal­ized per­for­mance, show the evo­lu­tion of a rad­i­cal through un­think­able de­hu­man­iza­tion. Nat, who has taught him­self to preach, trav­els from plan­ta­tion to plan­ta­tion with Samuel read­ing scrip­ture to other slaves. It’s there he sees that not all are as rel­a­tively benev­o­lent as the Turn­ers. The images haunt him — from the a lit­tle black girl be­ing led around on a leash to a man hav­ing his teeth ham­mered out. The hor­rors build in­side the once docile Nat un­til erupt­ing in a pas­sion­ate ser­mon, and, even­tu­ally the up­ris­ing. It’s all jux­ta­posed with im­agery of an­gels and dream­ily re­mem­bered mo­ments of a tribal leader telling a young Nat that he was des­tined to lead.

“The Birth of a Na­tion” hits all of th­ese notes very bluntly. Many have al­ready com­pared it to Mel Gib­son’s “Brave­heart,” which is apt. Roland Em­merich’s “The Pa­triot” is an­other. There is a bet­ter movie some­where be­low the pos­tur­ing. At this point, Parker is not yet as smooth a di­rec­tor as he is an ac­tor, but that’s not likely to al­ways be the case.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malta

© PressReader. All rights reserved.