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|The Birth of a Nation
dir-scr Nate Parker
prd Nate Parker, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L Gilbert, Preston L Holmes, Kevin Turen
with Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Colman Domingo, Roger Guenveur Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Mark Boone Jr, Dwight Henry, Esther Scott, Gabrielle Union
release US 7.Oct.16, UK 20.Jan.17
16/US Fox 2h00
At the master's bidding: Hammer and Parker
SUNDANCE FILM FEST
TORONTO FILM FEST
|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
Actor-filmmaker Nate Parker pours his soul into this engaging true story about a slave uprising in early 19th century Virginia. It's a slickly produced and only slightly over-egged period drama packed with present-day resonance as a young preacher finally realises he can't ignore the injustice any longer. Yes, aside from being a powerfully involving film, it has a lot to say to us today.
In 1809, Nat (Parker) is a soft spoken, intelligent slave working for Sam (Hammer), the young plantation heir he grew up with. Encouraged by Sam's mother (Miller) to learn to read, Nat has studied the Bible and become a popular preacher. The local slave-owners like to hire him to preach a "slaves obey your masters" message to their workers. But after Nat's wife Cherry (King) is attacked by ruthless slave tracker Cobb (Haley), the brutality and immorality of the system begins to gnaw away at him until he decides to take a stand.
The film is packed with details about Nat's life, including his childhood with his parents (Ellis and Henry), his sweet courtship with Cherry and the steady stream of indignities he both witnesses and is subjected to. Amid this systemic degradation, exploitation and violence, Sam is a benevolent master. This allows Cobb to become the villain of the piece, as he cruelly persecutes any slave he thinks is in the wrong place.
Every actor invests passion into the physically and emotionally demanding roles. Parker has wonderfully understated charisma as a man with inner strength who wants to do the right thing. Born into slavery, he has never known anything else. And it's ironic that the religion his owners give him is ultimately what drives him to spark violent action against them. Other characters kind of flicker around him, but each adds a kick of personality and texture.
The film finds present-day parallels in unexpected places, without ever shouting about it. The minority establishment simply doesn't care about the struggles of the majority that provides its wealth, so feels justified in excessive force to keep them in line. Most telling is how the story reveals key elements in American history that have led to the current climate of Black Lives Matter protests. So even if Parker kind of blinks at a raw, harrowing depiction of the atrocities, he uses skilful, earthy filmmaking to tell a story that's darkly disturbing.
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© 2016 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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