The Birth of a Nation

Posted on October 6, 2016 at 5:52 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity
Profanity: Racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Intense, brutal, and graphic violence, rape, murder, hanging, lynching
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 7, 2016
Date Released to DVD: January 9, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTHN5TU

Copyright 2016 Fox Searchlight
Copyright 2016 Fox Searchlight
Nat Turner was an enslaved man in early 19th century Virginia who led other enslaved people in an armed rebellion against slaveholders thirty years before the Civil War. They killed more than 50 white people and more than 200 black people.

For actor Nate Parker, Turner’s story has been a long-time passion project, and he has audaciously claimed, or reclaimed the title of the D.W. Griffith silent film as revered for its innovations in cinematic storytelling as it is reviled for its racist, pro-KKK storyline. “The Birth of a Nation” title is provocative, timely, serious-minded, and powerful, and so is the film. The title refutes the pernicious narrative of the 1915 Griffith film, an act of rebellion and justice and an assertion of dignity and humanity. And so does the quote at the beginning of the film, from the man who both wrote of the inalienable rights of all men and was a slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson. The film opens with a selection from this passage:

an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.–But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one’s mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

We first see Nat as a young boy, in a firelight gathering where enslaved people have congregated for some moments that recall the traditions of their home. Three birthmarks on the boy’s chest identify him as someone who will be a leader. Nat’s father, trying to get food for his family, kills a slave hunter and runs away.

There is a tense scene of terrible menace, as the other slave hunters come looking for Nat’s father that night, threatening Nat’s mother and grandmother, and finally the boy, too. We then see Nat running from a young white boy on the plantation, only to find that it is an innocent game, and the two seem to share a genuine sense of companionship. This is mirrored later in the film, when the then-adult Nat sees a little white girl playing with an enslaved girl by tugging her along with a rope like a dog on a leash.

Later, noticing the boy’s intelligence, the wife of the plantation owner (Penelope Ann Miller) brings the boy inside her home and teaches him to read. But the books on the shelves are not for him. “These books are for white folks. They are full of things your kind won’t understand.” There is just one book she will let him read: the Bible. He becomes a fervent believer, preaching the gospel to the other enslaved people.

As adults, Sam (Armie Hammer), the boy who was playing with him, has become the plantation owner and Nat (Parker) is his trusted servant. Nat persuades Sam to buy a woman who is being auctioned, and who clearly has suffered terribly. She becomes his wife and they love each other dearly.

When Sam falls on hard times and begins to drink too much, he starts renting out Nat’s services as a preacher to the other slaveholders. The plantation owners hope that his lessons about God’s will and the promise of heaven will keep them compliant. But Nat’s travels bring him into contact with the horrific atrocities inflicted by other slave holders. And some of the Bible’s lessons about justice and opposing tyranny take on an urgent power, as Nat’s wife is raped and beaten by slave hunters, another enslaved woman (Gabrielle Union) is forced to have sex with a man Sam hopes to do business with, and Nat is brutally whipped for baptizing a white man. He increasingly sees visions of a rebellion.

As a film, the movie falters, slipping into melodrama that recalls the Griffith film in ways it does not intend. But it transcends its storytelling shortcomings because of its palpable sincerity and passion, its force as a searing statement of history, and its relevance today. The fight for justice is a defining purpose of humanity, and Nat Turner’s cause goes on.

Parents should know that this film includes brutal slavery-related abuse including whipping, rape, beating, and forced feeding, a marital sexual situation with some nudity, drinking and drunkenness, and strong and racist language.

Family discussion: What made Nat Turner willing to take the risks of a rebellion? Why does this movie share the title of the famous D.W. Griffith silent film?

If you like this, try: “12 Years a Slave” and “Amistad” and read Nat Turner’s own words

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical

Interview: Nate Parker of “Beyond the Lights”

Posted on November 15, 2014 at 8:00 am

I first interviewed Nate Parker seven years ago about “The Great Debaters.” It was a great pleasure to catch up with him to discuss his performance in “Beyond the Lights,” one of the year’s best romantic dramas, with sizzling chemistry between the stars and some thoughtful insights into the pressures of celebrity to be hypersexualized.

Copyright 2104 Relativity Media
Copyright 2104 Relativity Media

Your film got a very enthusiastic response at the screening last night!

It seemed as though people enjoyed it. It’s exciting, it’s good when you make something that you are proud of and the response is positive across the board. Gina ‘s scripts and her concise and visionary way of telling stories is something I appreciate, so I was very happy that people responded in a positive way.

We need to take about the karaoke scene.

I think I want to talk to a few record companies on this, you know. I want to do some work together.

I know that it takes a lot of talent to come across as untalented as you did in that scene. So tell me a little bit about how you selected the song and about how you prepared for that scene.

The section of the movie set in Mexico was its own movie in a way.  Our characters get away to really find ourselves and to study each other in our relationship.  Gina wanted it to be very laid back, very down to earth with the personal side of each of us us, the inner kid in us. And so when she brought the karaoke thing to me she asked me if I can sing. I said, “I can sing a little bit.” And she was like “Ok, well we are going to do something a little bit different.” And she made some suggestions on songs. I am a huge New Edition fan. So we came to that song and she said, “OK, I’m going to have her sing this after,” and I said, “OK, well I’m going to do a terrible job!”  And I had fun. I had fun just kind of just playing with it. People are always asking me, “Can you sing in real life?” I think can sing a little bit, I think I do a little bit better than what you see in the film. It was a really good set up as well to be so terrible and then to hear the beauty in her voice, and the song. I think it works, it works in a reverse way.  It puts people in very open and vulnerable place to see someone kind of make a fool of himself and kind of sets them up to receive this incredible moment from Gugu’s character.

I think it also is a character moment for your character because anybody that has got that kind of confidence and charm, I think that’s great. We get a very explicit view of what your character teaches her character but tell me a little bit about what you think your character learns from her.

First I learned the dangers of living for someone else because in the film with Danny Glover as my father he also has plans for my life, like her mother has for her. And the implications of following down my father’s path are little less severe but nonetheless it still living someone else’s life. And I think in seeing the way she deals with her mother and seeing that she has no say in her life kind of reminds me of what is happening in my life. And it gives me the courage to stand up to my father, to say that there are things for my life that I think I want to pursue. And being a great father he’s open to allowing this character to explore himself and explore the things that make them happy. So a lot of people asked me if I think that I saved her and I think the real answer is we saved each other. We came into each other’s lives at very pivotal moments and because we leaned on each other for strength we were able to find our own voices in our lives and ultimately make decisions that we were proud of in the end.

 I love the fact that your character has those quotes that he likes. And I wondered did you play a role in selecting any of those and are there any quotes that are really important in your life?

Yes, it’s funny you asked. I’m also big on quotes. Gina brought it to me without knowing that about me. And so some of those quotes she pulled, some of them I pulled. I recently read a quote by Dante that given the climate of our country kind of resonates, and has resonated with me.  He says, “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral conflict.”  And I’m an activist first, I am very forthright in that. Where there is injustice I try to make a presence and deal with it. Martin Luther King also said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. I think that those things are really, really a focus in my life. I try my very best to select projects that will deal with social issues in a way that can also be entertaining. When you watch this film you see how a woman who is so desperately hyperexualized and so removed from any sense of who she is as a person and even thinking of committing suicide and how it is important for young girls for them to see that you should be careful before they wish someone else’s life on their own. And that they should understand that to love someone else you love yourself first. And to love yourself you have got to know yourself. So these are themes that I think are not only important because they highlight an interesting story but it also sends a message to young people out there. As the father of four daughters, that means even more to me.

Gina mentioned how much she loves working with you.  What makes your partnership so successful?

One is that she is an activist as well. She’s is very big on perpetuating positivity on in the female space. And having daughters I am also big on that. Also she is a visionary, she’s very clear on what she wants to protect into the world that she does it without compromise and I’ve always admired her for that as a filmmaker. And now as an aspiring filmmaker and going into directing my feature, I very much pull on her and draw on her ideology when it comes to absolute solidarity and collaboration and never compromising on her vision. So she makes it easy to say yes.

What are some of the causes that you are most passionate about?

Oh man, there so many. A lot of what I do revolves around young black man. We started a project in Brooklyn called Leadership and Literacy through Debate where we use this debate platform to inspire young men that don’t know how to read to become literate. We started that with “The Great Debaters” and it continued on over the years.  I do a lot of work with Amnesty and the Boys and Girls Club. There’s a project called Peace4Kids that’s been going on for the last 15 years in South Los Angeles. So there are a lot of things that I’m involved with. I always say that where ever there are young people in need you’ll find me there trying to stand in the gap for them.

How do you guide and protect your daughters in a world where there are so many hyper sexualized role models for them?

Number one is history. They have to know their legacy where they came from because from that they will draw their identity. They will know all the moving parts that made them who they are and then through that they will understand that they have a high expectation of achievement moving forward based on what they know of himself. And I think far too often we don’t set the bar high enough for our children. We kind of allow them to be raised by their circumstances and environment. Instead of being intentional in the things that we teach them and the boundaries we set for their lives.

So for me and my girls, I’m big on history. Just teaching them about their ancestry, teaching them about the diaspora, teaching them about the many ancestors that came before them and sacrificed and thrived before them. And I read an article not too long ago, I don’t remember the name of the article but it talked about the three keys to success when it came to parenting and it was something that’s really stuck with me. And one is the superiority complex, believing that you’re here for something, for something greater. The second is, having a chip on your shoulder. Saying that there are people who will come before you, there are people you can make proud. That was big for me, understanding that I could create a life for my family for my mother and my sisters. I have four younger sisters and I have four daughters so it was huge for me knowing that I had the responsibility for creating a life for them. So I’ve always walked around life feeling like I needed to do more, I had something to prove. And the third was impulse control. And that was big for me when I was in school and understanding that if you would take a beat before you reacted in any situation. You would give yourself a better chance of choosing the right solution to that moment. So impulse control was a really, really big one especially in my movement with the young black males. Your instinct is not always the best decision and how to take a moment in that I let that sleep before you move into what you think is the right answer the right choice for your life.  And what are the consequences? I guess that’s the thing, that we don’t really understand that everything comes with consequences. Whether it be something as huge as addiction and gateway drugs but or something as small as sleeping in every day. These things all have consequences and once we learn to attach those to everything we do I think that we become a lot more intentional about the way we live our lives and there will be personal or image of success.

 

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Actors Interview

Beyond the Lights

Posted on November 13, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Copyright 2104 Relativity Media
Copyright 2104 Relativity Media

“Beyond the Lights” is a welcome return to the grand traditions of movie romance, with sizzling chemistry between gorgeous, fabulously charismatic stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker. And it also has some very astute insights about family, ambition, and the pressure put on young women, especially those in the performing arts, to present themselves as sexually provocative and available.

Minnie Driver plays Macy Jean, a ruthlessly ambitious stage mother who sees her talented young daughter, Noni, as her ticket out of poverty and powerlessness. We first see them at a singing competition when Noni is a little girl (India Jean-Jacques). Her performance of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” gets her a trophy that her mother smashes to the ground because she did not come in first. Then Noni is grown up (Mbatha-Raw), singing and dancing in a steamy music video, featuring a successful rapper named Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly). Macy Jean is pushing Noni hard to do whatever it takes to become a star, and she is on the brink of a breakthrough, with an upcoming television appearance that should launch her into superstardom.
But in the midst of all of this sound and fury, Noni feels lost.  The image her mother has created for her is so overpowering that she does not know who she is anymore.  She is a singer with a million-dollar voice, but she is also a person who feels that it belongs to someone else, that she is lost somewhere beneath the glitter and fakery.  Alone in her hotel room, she goes out the window and sits on the ledge, contemplating allowing herself to just fall off.

She is rescued by a cop assigned to her security detail.  His name is Kaz (Parker) and he grabs her hand and looks into her eyes.  He says “I see you.”  And she believes he does.

Of course, the incident is spun for the press.  “We’re selling fantasy here, and suicide ain’t sexy.”  Noni jokes about the risks of combining champagne and stilettos and poses with her handsome savior.  But Kaz did see Noni.  He saw her the way she wanted to be seen.  And she saw him, too.

Kaz has a demanding parent, too, a father (Danny Glover) who wants him to run for office, and knows that Noni is not first lady material.

Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) keeps the love story glamorous but never soapy, through the subtle, moving performances by Mbatha Raw and Parker, and a script that respects the characters, with thoughtful details and easy humor.  In the very beginning, Macy Jean is frantic because she does not know how to handle her biracial child’s hair.  Later, Noni is wearing a purple-streaked weave for her music video.  And when she begins to be happy again, she frees her hair as she finds her true voice.  Prince-Bythewood’s confidence in her own voice as much a pleasure of this film as the love story and the star power, which add up to the best date movie of the year.

Parents should know that this film includes very provocative sexual imagery and musical performances with very skimpy clothing, sexual references and situations, strong and crude language, attempted suicide, and tense family confrontations.

Family discussion:  What does it mean to “do small things in a great way?”  How did Noni and Kaz help each other? Why did being on the brink of great success was Noni in despair?  What can we do to protect girls from the overwhelming focus on appearance?

If you like this, try: “The Rose,” “The Bodyguard,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Dreamgirls,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Gypsy,” and “Mahogany”

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Date movie Drama Gender and Diversity Race and Diversity Romance

November 2014: Movies This Month

Posted on November 1, 2014 at 8:00 am

It’s going to be a great month at the movies! November is traditionally the time when we start to see the big awards hopefuls. Next Friday, two of the most anticipated films of the year open: Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as explorers seeking a new planet for humans who can no longer live on a desolate, broken Earth, and Disney’s “Big Hero 6,” based on the Marvel comic about a lovable robot and the equally lovable nerds who work with him to save the day.

And then:

November 14:

“Beyond the Lights” — a romantic drama about a fragile pop star (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her ambitious mother (Minnie Driver), and the handsome, true-hearted cop who rescues her (Nate Parker).

“The Theory of Everything” — the most brilliant scientist of our time, Stephen Hawking, is confined to a wheelchair and speaks through a computer, because he has ALS. This is the story of his days in school, falling in love, early work, and learning of his illness. It stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

“Rosewater” — John Stewart wrote and directed this story of a journalist named Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) who was jailed for his reporting.

November 21:

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” Jennifer Lawrence is back in the next-to-last of the series.

“Foxcatcher” In this fact-based story from the writer and director of “Capote,” Steve Carell is almost unrecognizable as the unstable heir to the Dupont fortune who sponsored Olympic wrestling team hopefuls — and murdered one of them. Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum co-star as the real life Schultz brothers, both gold medal winners.

November 26:

“Penguins of Madagascar” puts the most popular characters from the “Madagascar” series in the middle of the action for a spy story co-starring John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch.

“Horrible Bosses 2” Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day are back (and so are Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston) for another wild comedy, this time co-starring Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine.

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Opening This Month

Non-Stop

Posted on February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm

non-stopI’ve got nothing against action movies that are dumb fun (see last week’s review of 3 Days to Kill). My bar is pretty low. I don’t ask them to make sense. But “Non-Stop” sinks to a level of ridiculousness that harshes the buzz from even a top-notch cast and engaging set-up. I never thought I’d say this, but if Liam Neeson wants to appear in an yearly middle-aged action movie to combat the doldrums of winter, maybe he should consider “Taken 3.”  Or “Snakes on a Plane 2.”

Neeson plays Bill Marks, an ex-cop-turned air marshall with issues.  We meet him in the airport parking lot, taking a drink, arguing with his boss, and looking seedy and shaky.  Outside the airport taking a last smoke, he is distracted, not hearing a request for a light, and inside the airport he is curt with other travelers.  Once on board the plane to London, he admits to his seatmate, Jen (Julianne Moore), that he is very tense during take-off, but fine once the plane is in the air. Once they air airborne, he goes into the lavatory and puts duct tape on the smoke detector so he can have another cigarette.

Back in his seat, he receives a text on the secure federal network.  It says that if $150 million is not transferred to a bank account, every twenty minutes someone on the plane will die.  The sender seems to know all about him.  Bill has to figure out if the threat is real and who it is coming from.

Thankfully, the movie avoids the obvious “if you don’t know why that well-known actor is in this movie, he’s the bad guy” syndrome.  There’s a lot of bench strength in the “that guy looks familiar” non-star supporting cast, with outstanding character performers and up-and-coming actors like Scoot McNairy (“12 Years a Slave,” “Argo”), Corey Stoll (“Midnight in Paris,” “House of Cards”), Nate Parker (“Arbitrage”), Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”), Luptia Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), Linus Roache (“Law and Order: SVU”), and Omar Metwally (“Harry’s Law”).  Every one of them takes the unforgiving material of the storyline further than it could possibly be expected to go, most of them giving us reasons to doubt/believe/doubt/believe whatever they are saying so nicely that they almost make it possible for us to ignore the increasingly dumber twists of what I will loosely refer to as the plot.  They make the shifting alliances hold our interest even as the storyline veers out of control.  The twists and turns of the who-dun-it and what-did-he-or-she-do-and-how are not as dumb as the decision to have Marks, for example, stop in the middle of a dire, every-second-counts moment to tell everyone on the plan a sad story about why he is so tortured.  And then there’s the moment when the cabin loses air pressure just in time to float a gun into Marks’ hand.

An airplane movie should take advantage of its locked-room setting and inherent danger.  But this one seems to miss the point.  Constricted space and the limits on getting dangerous materials through the TSA checkpoint should make the fight scenes more interesting, but they are unimaginatively staged by director Jaume Collet-Serra.  Marks’ instability is another limitation should also add an additional layer of uncertainty, but it is handled so inconsistently that it breaks the tension.  Finally, so much is piled into the last fifteen minutes that it feels like an unsuccessful attempt to get us to forget how little sense it makes.  We don’t ask for much from movies like this but the minimum is that you should get all the way to the car before you start saying, “Wait a minute….”  This one depends on such a pile-up of preposterousness that even these actors can’t land it safely.

Parents should know that this movie’s themes concern terrorism and hijacking, fights, guns, bomb, intense peril. Some characters are injured and killed, and the movie includes a sexual situation, brief strong language including gay slur, drugs, and alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: What was the villain’s real motive? If you suspected the wrong person, how did the movie mislead you?

If you like this, try: “Air Force One” and “Red Eye”

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Action/Adventure Drama Thriller