Based on published accounts in 1863 of a former slave named Gordon, this “based on a true story” story has Will Smith returning to his acting roots after his shocking worldwide Oscar incident that tainted his image. Will this film help him?
1863 sucked. POTUS Abraham Lincoln may have just freed the slaves but plantation owners refused to abide by it. Slaves were forced to make a run for their freedom or get killed trying. Such is the story of Peter (Smith), a life-long God-fearing religious slave who is grabbed off his plantation and taken away from his wife, Dodienne (Charmaine Bingwa), and kids and thrown into a horrific Confederate Army slave camp. While there, Peter is witness to the unimaginable cruelty and ghastly treatment of his brethren under the steely eyes of Fassel (Ben Foster), the racist overseer. But Peter is smart and has a plan to escape.
Seizing an opportunity, Peter and three of his fellow slaves take off towards freedom in Baton Rogue and Lincoln’s Union Army, a dangerous and treacherous trek through five miles of swamp land. As they split up, Fassel and two of his henchmen are in hot pursuit. Peter, exhausted, bleeding, and using his wits to get him out of jam after jam (alligators! dogs! leeches! snakes! bees!) with tenacious Fassel never giving up his hunt. And just when you think the movie has a climax, surprise! The film switches gears and becomes 1989’s Glory, with Peter enlisting in the all-Black Union Army and storming the shores of Normandy. . . sorry, I mean, storming the hills of somewhere to take out Johnny Reb.
Written by William Collage (Assassin’s Creed, Exodus: Gods and Kings), it takes liberties with the true story (check out the real Gordon, aka “whipped Peter”, on Wikipedia) and Hollywoodizes his story for more dramatic content. This is both good and bad. At a lengthy 2hrs and 19min, it spends too much time with Peter running around in the Lousiana swamps and less time on his actual story, which is astounding. His stint in the Union Army and what happened to him there is the stuff of movies. This is, more or less, a ‘chase movie’ with a good chunk of the movie having Fassell pursuing Peter. It gets old after a while, even with Antoine Fuqua’s (both The Equalizer movies, The Magnificent Seven) incredible black & white stark photography and wonderful direction.
It’s here the film soars. Fuqua is a brilliant director and has a firm handle on how and when to put to the camera, using drones this time to bump his action sequences, especially during the final 20 minutes of his epic war set-piece. A Saving Private Ryan – Civil War style. Now, on to Will Smith. Say what you will about the man but he can still give an Oscar-caliber performance and he doesn’t shy away here. He saves this mediocre film and elevates it, along with Ben Foster who gives a chilling account in act two that is frighteningly prophetic for hate groups. And Fuqua took a page from Steven Spielberg and shot this in glorious black & white with subtle flashes of color to accentuate the mood. Bravo!
**Now showing in select theaters and streaming on AppleTV+
Birth Of A Nation (2016)
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 filmmaker. Today, Parker joins the ranks of Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, and Clint Eastwood (to name a few) who did it all: write, produce, direct, and star in their own motion pictures. That’s a lot of hats to wear!
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 Hollywoodized to suit the discerning palates of your basic theatergoers. Nat Turner, stolen from Africa when he was 12-years-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). They 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 explain that slavery is a good thing. Yeah, it really does says that!
But after his wife is disfigured (off-screen, thank God), he can’t take it any longer. He organizes a small group of friends and fellow slaves and proceeds 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 emotional impact on the people, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Parker, on the other hand, his debut as an actor, etc. proved to be fortuitous. He showed 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 an over-blown 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 slaveholders, 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’.