THE BIRTH OF A NATION can't be experienced in a vacuum. It was never intended to be. Its marketing has effectively embraced current racial tensions, and the very title of the film is intended to confront its sickeningly racist film-school namefellow. Also necessary to acknowledge are 1999 rape allegations against filmmaker Nate Parker and Birth co-writer Jean Celestin. Parker was acquitted of the charges, Celestin was found guilty, then was acquitted on appeal. After multiple attempts, their accuser committed suicide, though not before complaining about harrassment from Parker and others.
Even separating art and artist, it's a shame that The Birth of a Nation 2016 is a sterile, grade-school textbook of a film. Moments of clarity and beauty shine through, but the filmmaker's ambition conflicts with his insufficiency.
Nathaniel Turner, as those of us who read those grade-school textbooks know, was born into slavery in the early 1800s, and eventually led a bloody uprising in 1831 that took the lives of dozens of white slave owners, and hundreds of black people. In filmmaker Nate Parker's writing and directorial debut (he also stars in the film), he offers a wide view of Turner's life, starting at a fireside ceremony where an aged slave declares the youthful Turner a prophet.
And that's where the problems begin. Biopics are difficult because they must distill into a pair of hours the importance of a person's life, philosophies, relationships — all of the complexities of being human. The best biographical films focus on a relative moment — a day, a week, a year — that encompasses its subject's legacy in a compelling story arc. Instead, we watch Turner witness and suffer a series of indignities over the course of 25 years. This could have been an opportunity to highlight the casual, constant cruelty perpetrated on 19th century American blacks. Parker never comes close. Instead, a handful of brutal scenes — the most vile of which take place completely off screen — punctuate a strangely chaste landscape that Parker paints. The violence perpetrated on the black women in the film seems present primarily to justify Turner's rage, their abuse the narrative final straw. One victim doesn't even warrant a spoken line.
In a world as sadistic as the antebellum South, abject violence portrayed as an exception seems whitewashed. It's one of Parker's numerous missteps. Nat Turner's owners are painted from the outset as sympathetic. His master's wife takes him under her wing, encouraging his literacy. Her son, who becomes Turner's owner, is played as a drunk reluctantly trying to fit in with the rest of slaveholding high society. Turner's role in the purchase of Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who becomes his wife, ends up feeling icky instead of redemptive.
Maybe it's no surprise that a film getting accolades and award buzz (it already took home prestigious Sundance prizes) prominently features the "kindly white slaveholders," including one who weepily attends Turner's hanging when the revolution fails.
Parker plays Turner with some dignity but the character is never realized. The Birth of a Nation doesn't elucidate his motivations. When did he undergo his moral and philosophical awakenings? Who did he confide in? How long did he struggle with his choice?
Nate Parker's Nat Turner disappears during what must have been the hardest time in his life: after his revolution has failed and white militias are carrying out retributive murders of innocent blacks around the counties, trying to drive him out of hiding. It's a bizarre choice. We expect biographers to suss out the hidden moments of an important person's life, not hide them away. A cursory bout of research reveals that this denouement contains a troubling historical inaccuracy, as well.
Maybe this would all be forgiven if Parker could land on a storytelling tone; instead he wavers between afterschool-special lessons and plodding moral exposition that occasionally lands some lyrical poignancy. The cinematography is able and, at times, great. Unfortunately, those scenes are almost entirely contained in the theatrical trailer.
Hopefully the film will drive its viewers to read more about Nat Turner. But The Birth of a Nation does little to humanize Turner, less to explore how he must have seethed at the injustice of his time. Which brings us back to that vacuum. Parker's film fails to humanize Turner in a time when, given the contemporary injustices that black communities face, audiences need it most. R. 120m. BROADWAY.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is an effective thriller, credit for which should largely be given to Emily Blunt. Set in a prim but austere Upstate New York winter, the film evokes an early sense of dread, dispensing with some of the tropes that infect white suburban suspense.
Rachel (Blunt) obsesses over her ex-husband and his new wife, as well as their ideal neighbors, twice a day from the window of her Manhattan-bound commuter train. Since their divorce — predicated on Rachel's inability to conceive — she's taken to drinking heavily. Blunt capably plays a composed drunk and her paranoia and sadness feel fully realized. Still, her innocent nature casts doubts about her storied behavior at the bottom of the bottle.
When her ex's nanny (Haley Bennett) goes missing, Rachel inserts herself into the investigation with a key piece of information she witnessed from the train. But her tendency toward airplane bottles and stalker behavior continue to threaten the trust of the people with whom she interacts.
As a thriller, Girl relies a little too heavily on the twist and there are some prominent plot fragments left hanging. But Girl on the Train is refreshing because it unfolds outside of the standard detective narrative. The film's best twist — which won't be revealed here — is only a secondary, maybe tertiary revelation, but it's satisfying and perhaps most relevant to the film's commentary about relationships. R. 112m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
— Grant Scott-Goforth
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
THE ACCOUNTANT. A gun-toting mathlete (Ben Affleck) is pursued by his dangerous international clientele. R. 128m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK, THE TOURING YEARS. Found footage and interviews covering 1963 to 1966. NR. 137m. MINOR.
CAFE SOCIETY. Jesse Eisenberg stands in for Woody Allen, mingling with mobsters and starlets in old Hollywood. With Kristen Stewart. R. 112m. MINOR.
KEVIN HART: WHAT NOW? The comedian performs stand-up in a Philadelphia arena. R. 96m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MAX STEEL. A teen (Ben Winchell) discovers his super powers and a robot sidekick inherited from his late father. PG13. 92m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. The 1971 original with Gene Wilder as the candy man. G. 100m. BROADWAY.
DEEPWATER HORIZON. Peter Berg's taut oil rig disaster drama keeps a tight focus on the struggle of its real-life characters in a few crucial hours. PG13. 107m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
HELL OR HIGH WATER. A pair of bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) are pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) in a fine, character-driven film about what poverty does to people. R. 102m. MINOR.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Some fine performances in this enjoyable remake, particularly from Peter Sarsgaard as the villain and a monstrous Vincent D'Onofrio, as well as strong action sequences. Still, it lags in places and breaks no new ground for the genre. PG13. 133m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
MASTERMINDS. Tame and toothless heist comedy punches a little low and doesn't get enough dark laughs out of stars Zach Galifianakis and Kristen Wiig. PG13. 94m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE. The new kid in school (Griffin Gluck) sets out to break each of its suffocating rules of conduct. R. 112m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN. Eva Green stars as headmistress in Tim Burton's adaptation of the book about children with magical powers. PG13. 127m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
QUEEN OF KATWE. True tale of a Ugandan girl who rises through the ranks as a chess champion. With David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o and Medina Nalwanga. PG. 124m. BROADWAY.
STORKS. A retail delivery bird winds up in the baby business trying to get an infant to a family. Or you could just have the talk with your kids. Voices of Jennifer Anniston and Kelsey Grammer. PG. 87m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill