REVIEW: The Birth of a Nation

7 10 2016

In Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” many an incident between slaves and their white captors in early 1800s America feels like the first ripple leading to the tsunami of racial tension washing up today. A black man walking home innocuously who is greeted with distrust and violence from roving vigilantes recalls the charged interactions between minorities and police officers. The employment of selective Bible quotes to reinforce racial hierarchies draws attention to how religious groups often impede, rather than promote, equity and justice. Black women are commoditized and then made the targets of sexual violence – well, nothing much has changed there.

Parker’s message becomes apparent quite quickly: it’s a movie about Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, but it’s ~really~ about contentious race relations in 2016. Historicizing the present is, on its face, certainly nothing worthy of complaint; plenty of great films have used this technique to stirring effect. But “The Birth of a Nation” falters because in the relentless focus on contemporary concerns, Parker loses sight of what makes slavery so horrible.

By favoring present-day relevance over historical trauma, Parker denies us a full glimpse at the true terrors of slavery. It’s a pure spectacle, one that primarily exists to provide moments that propel Nat Turner’s ultimate transformation from plantation pastor to rebellious renegade. Parker’s parade of images meant to illustrate the brutality of the system do a disservice to the atrocity of slavery by avoiding anything that causes pain.

His sanitized glimpses at the violence include cutaways during forced teeth extraction, a painless whipping against the pole and an implied rape. Parker is so concerned about locating the pulse of “The Birth of a Nation” in modern times that he winds up taking a gallingly non-confrontational attitude about the subject of slavery. Placing his agenda on a pedestal over their pain rings both cheap and hollow.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 11, 2016)

11 08 2016

Ain't Them Bodies SaintsWhen I first watched David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” my initial impression was that it amounted to one of the better spate of Malick-lite films spawned in the wake of “The Tree of Life.” Look for that and you’ll see all the hallmarks: floating camera, internal dialogue drifting through scenes, bucolic settings, deep contemplation.

But seeing that and only that misses all the film has to offer elsewhere. (To be fair, this probably was not a great movie to watch while jet-lagged after just arriving for a semester abroad in Europe.) “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is more than just an explosion of technical virtuosity from Lowery and director of photography Bradford Young, who has since gone on to lens such notable works as “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year.” It is my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because its outer beauty helps expose the inner beauty of its epistolary love story.

At the core of the film is Rooney Mara’s steely Ruth Guthrie, a Texas woman caught between the man who stole her heart (Casey Affleck’s Bob Muldoon) and the officer who helped put Bob behind bars (Ben Foster’s Patrick Wheeler). Don’t call it a love triangle, though. Mara remains stone-faced as if she has erected the ultimate shield to mask her internal bewilderment over all that transpires. The choice ahead is one of great magnitude, and her strategy for coming to grips relies on downplaying her decision.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” does contain a storyline running parallel to its main plot involving Bob’s escape from prison and surreptitious journey back to reclaim Ruth. Affleck brings his usual grizzled intensity to the role, but make no mistake, the film is all Mara.

REVIEW: Beyond the Lights

9 08 2015

Beyond the LightsBeyond the Lights” features one of the more interesting dialogues about the suffocating pressures of fame and the stifling sexualization of our culture.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Noni Jean, a digital-age pop star with all the qualities of a true songbird, gets fed up with both and threatens to throw it all away by jumping off a balcony.  Thankfully, Nate Parker’s officer Kaz is there to keep her from making the leap.

What follows in writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film is partially a demonstration of what happens to women who rebel against the implicit contract that they must become objects of sexual desire first and bearers of talent second.  (Shocker: people, men especially, HATE it.)  But to keep Noni from another complete relapse, she needs some source of comfort; she finds that in Kaz.

A romantic subplot is hardly objectionable, yet it seems odd when it ultimately becomes the main storyline in a film that otherwise concerns itself with female empowerment.  Prince-Blythewood directs the scenes between Noni and Kaz with all the subtlety of a Hallmark movie.  They are drawn-out, sappy, and far too numerous.

The discussion “Beyond the Lights” wants to start is worth having.  But whether you want to endure some of the standard-issue syrupy adoration to join in is a decision you have to make for yourself.  B-/ 2stars