Review – My Country ‘Tis Of Thee? (“Birth of a Nation”)

I won’t get political and get into writer/producer/actor/director Nate Parker’s alleged shady past, I’ll just stick to his debut as a film maker. Today, Parker joins the ranks of Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, and Clint Eastwood (to name a few) who do it ALL: write, produce, direct, AND star in their own motion pictures. That’s a lot of hats to wear!
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Based on the true accounts of rebel slave and preacher Nat Turner, Nate Parker (reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington) not only turns in a bravura performance as the slave leader, but also has quite the flair for a first time screenwriter and director. Naturally, as far as ‘based on a true story’ goes, this movie has been Hollywood-ized to suit the discerning palates of your basic theatergoer.

Nat Turner, stolen from Africa when his was 12-year-old and sold to a Southern plantation, was told that he was special as a child. His masters, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and his doting wife, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) are relatively kind to their slaves, giving them ample food and shelter. Elizabeth even teaches young Nat to read the Bible when he shows an interest in books. Growing up, Nat becomes a gifted preacher who gives sermons to his ‘flock’ and, one afternoon on the road, tricks Samuel into buying a young slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King).

These two fall in love and soon marry, having a baby girl, but things are about to go very sideways. Because of Nat’s preaching abilities and Samuel’s increasing debts, a deal is stuck: Nat will preach to other slaves at their plantations for Samuel’s profit. This opens Nat’s eyes as he sees the stomach-churning atrocities and horrible hardships that are inflicted on his fellow brethren… brethren that he has to preach Old Testament scripture to saying that slavery is a good thing. Yeah, it really does says that!

But after his wife is disfigured after being beaten up and raped (off-screen, thank God), he can’t take it any longer. He organizes a small group of friends and fellow slaves and proceed to go all Medieval on their owners with axes, hoes, swords, and clubs. Leading the revolt, Nat plans to gather slaves in the hundreds so they can all “march to Jerusalem”, but they hit a major snag when Nat is betrayed.

The ending, much like Braveheart or Spartacus, has our rebellious leader dying a heroic death at the hands of their oppressors. If you read the REAL story of Nat Turner (see Wikipedia), there is so much more to his story and the aftermath of the uprising. Still, this screenplay by Turner hits on all points and, even though it’s nowhere near as interesting, gripping, or shockingly gruesome as 12 Years A Slave, it still carries a powerful message about the worst part of our American history.

Whereas this Birth of a Nation uses only the title from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film about the KKK, there’s no real nation being born here, unlike Braveheart where William Wallace set about into motion Scotland’s freedom. Turner’s rebellion and ultimate sacrifice needed to have more of an emotion impact on the people, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Parker, on the other hand, for his debut as an actor, etc. proved to be fortuitous.

He showed that, not only can he act (his only other screen credits were small parts in movies like Non-Stop, Red Hook Summer, and Red Tails), but he can also write a decent screenplay and direct it without making it a over-directed project. His use of lighting and focus is particularly effective in key scenes and he doesn’t misuse the camera with fancy slo-mo, mixed-edits, or slam-cuts like other first-time directors who want to show-off.

Kudos to Hammer and Miller as the slave holders, giving great performances, as does the underused Jackie Earle Haley as truly evil Ray Cobb. Although much of the violence is dialed down in many scenes, there are a couple that are just ghastly, especially one involving some, shall I say, dental work. You may NOT want to eat before you see this movie, is all I’m sayin’.

Spartacus (1960)
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In this sword ‘n’ sandal Biblical epic, Stanley Kubrick took a HUGE chance and gave his friend, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the reins of writing one  of the greatest motion pictures of all time and based on the true story of Spartacus, the lone slave who led a slave revolt against their masters.

It’s a Tuesday in 1BC and arrogant and ornery slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas at his peak) is SO uncooperative in his servitude, that he is sent to a special gladiator school… sort of a Top Gun for slaves. Run by the lecherous and greedy Roman businessman, Lentulus Batiatus (the great Peter Ustinov), Spartacus’ trainer,  Marcellus (Charles McGraw) puts the man through his brutal training paces. Amid the abuse, Spartacus forms a quiet relationship with Varinia (Jean Simmons), a serving girl that he refuses to rape as part of his “reward”.

But when Batiatus receives a visit from Roman senator Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier), everything changes. Crassus buys Varinia on the spot, and forces Spartacus and three others to fight for sport. When Spartacus and buddy Draba (Woody Strode) pair off and Spartacus shows compassion, Crassus gives the thumbs down! Filled with rage, Spartacus kills Marcellus, escalating the incident into a full scale riot, with all the slaves overwhelming the guards and escaping into the hills.<

Spartacus, designated as their leader, decides to lead them out of Italy and back to their homes, BUT, they might as well loot, plunder, and pillage on their way there, right? On the way to the sea to buy transport, they collect other slaves, making their army grow exponentially. Varinia joins them, having escaped Crassus, as well as a slave entertainer named Antoninus (Tony Curtis). Meanwhile, the Roman Senate becomes increasingly alarmed as Spartacus defeats the multiple armies they send against him. Not to mention a political power-play going on in the Senate, with sneaky Gracchus (fun Charles Laughton) trying to usurp the Roman army.

Things are looking well as Spartacus bribes local pirates to get them away from Italy, but all those plans go terribly wrong when Crassus outsmarts Spartacus and makes the pirates a better offer: Get lost or else! Captured and sentenced to die, hundreds of slaves will live IF they give up Spartacus in the famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene. The bittersweet finale is very sad, but at least has a glimmer of a happy ending, as Varinia and baby are secreted away as a crucified Spartacus gets to see his son before he dies. Better grab the tissue at this point.

At almost three hours, this movie just zips along, thanks to Trumbo’s gripping screenplay and the timeless, masterful direction of Stanley Kubrick. This movie works on every level with it’s slightly religious overtones, to the slave-ownership issues, to the newly restored Olivier/Curtis bath house scene (“Do you like snails?”), and the top-notch acting from all the players. Check out the scenes with Laughton and Ustinov; so egotistical where these two, they kept trying to ‘out-act’ each other. They even told fledgling actor Jean Simmons to ‘pay more attention to me than him’!

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