[Screen It]


(2016) (Nate Parker, Armie Hammer) (R)

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Drama: After witnessing continued abuse of others like him, an educated slave plots to mount an insurrection against those who are suppressing and mistreating them.
It's 1809 in Southampton County, Virginia and Nat Turner (TONY ESPINOSA) is a young slave boy who suddenly finds himself without a father when that man goes on the run after a violent encounter with slave tracker Raymond Cobb (JACKIE EARLE HALEY) and several other men. That leaves Nat's mother, Nancy (AUNJANUE ELLIS), and grandmother to raise him, but his life takes an unexpected turn when the plantation owner's wife, Elizabeth (PENELOPE ANN MILLER), learns that young Nat can read. She then takes it upon herself to educate the boy and thus has him move into the main house. But when her husband dies, it's decided Nat should return to being a field hand.

Years later, Nat (NATE PARKER) is just that, as well as the personal slave to Elizabeth's son, Samuel Turner (ARMIE HAMMER), who gives Nat a little more leeway than most other slave owners, what with them having grown up as childhood playmates. It's from that relationship that Nat convinces Samuel to buy Cherry (AJA NAOMI KING) at a slave auction to work for Samuel's wife in their home. But things aren't going great on the Turner farm and thus Samuel decides to take up Rev. Walthall (MARK BOONE JR.) on an offer he suggests.

Knowing that Nat has become an unofficial preacher for the slaves on their farm, and keenly aware of unrest among slaves elsewhere, the reverend proposes to pay Samuel in exchange for each time Nat travels to local farms and preach the gospel of obedience to other slaves. Being a religious man, Nat is initially okay with that, but as he witnesses the inhuman treatment of those men, women and children elsewhere, his patience and stomach for continuing with that begin to wane. And when Cobb and other men brutally attack Cherry -- who's now Nat's wife and mother to his child -- the educated slave can't take it anymore and thus begins to plot an insurrection to get even with the slave owners and other white people complicit with that institution.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
There's a moment in the second half of Nate Parker's slavery drama "The Birth of a Nation" where a character decries the deadly violence dealt against people of color. It's meant to show the frustration of what the central characters and others of their ethnicity are facing based both on the industry of slavery and the color of their skin. And it's meant as yet another catalyst for what would become Nat Turner's bloody 1831 rebellion against slave owners and those who supported that institution.

And at that point, many African-American attendees at our preview screening shouted out in agreement not necessarily in relation to the historical context of what they were watching, but more so in how it relates to the current Black Lives Matter movement. I can certainly understand and appreciate the connection between the two and how, as a country, we've come a long way in terms of race relations but still face unsettling problems.

What I couldn't understand and certainly didn't like was that some in that same crowd didn't otherwise give the film respect in terms of its historical significance in their lives, or the writer/director's attempts to refashion cinematic history in terms of this film's particular title.

You see, way back in 1915, director D.W. Griffith unleashed "The Birth of a Nation" onto viewers who'd never seen anything like it before in the still nascent film industry. Featuring some actors appearing in black face and presenting the Ku Klux Klan as heroic figures dealing with the villainous and despicable post-Civil War actions of freed black men, the picture was a hit among large populations of white folk while it was decried by those of color.

In his version, Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin flip the tables and feature Nat Turner as the righteous hero acting as a personified wrath of God character to deal with slave owners and racists. Accordingly, one would think those at our screening would view all of that as reverential stuff. Instead, many chatted about this and that, sometimes movie related (if about odd things, such as where a character would get certain clothing) and sometimes not.

But when the rebellion finally kicks in late in the film, they reacted as if it was "Django Unchained 2" or some other exploitative revenge flick. That resulted in literal laughing, guffawing and talking aloud about the violence unleashed, which includes a beheading and other such graphic acts. All of which nearly took me completely out of the film (I find such behavior slightly tolerable at haunted house type horror flicks and some comedies, but not straight dramas like this).

Granted, I can sort of see where that's coming from as the plot is set up as something akin to a standard revenge flick. For more than half of the film's 120-some minute runtime, we see the horrible treatment of various slaves at the hands of white owners, as does the protagonist (played by Parker) who's been tasked with preaching to other slaves about the gospel of obedience.

But as visits to other farms result in an increased view of such atrocities (including an ugly way of dealing with a slave on a hunger strike), our character's religious view of such matters switches away from a God of peace and love to one of wrath with him believing he's the chosen one to deliver the latter.

And once his wife (Aja Naomi King) ends up attacked by a group of white men (including one played by Jackie Earle Haley in not much more than one dimension) and then his former childhood playmate turned slightly tolerant owner (Armie Hammer) succumbs to racist peer pressure and the bottle, the educated slave can't take it anymore.

Somewhat surprisingly, the filmmaker doesn't spend a great deal of time on the rebellion itself and the resultant aftermath (or the fact that those rebels killed women and children as well in real life -- something not depicted in the film). There are some quick scenes of the violence and then the immediate establishment armed reaction and then the dealing with the rebel leader itself, but most of that's quickly handled and feels fairly truncated in terms of its relation to the overall story.

Accordingly -- and perhaps resulting from the aforementioned crowd reaction as well as the recent, real-life controversy about Parker and Celestin being charged with sexual assault on an intoxicated woman back in their days at Penn State -- I didn't find the film as powerful as other anti-slavery pics like "12 Years a Slave." It's decent, especially as a vigilante style flick (and the tech credits are solid), but as a look back at a pivotal moment in race relations in our country, it just didn't feel as powerful to me as it could and should have.

While it frees up its title from the racist message the 1915 film exuded, "The Birth of a Nation" is only good enough to rate as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed September 27, 2016 / Posted October 7, 2016

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