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October 9, 2016
By Thomas Atseff, Lyons Township
After receiving a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, the writer, director and star of this Friday’s slavery drama “The Birth of a Nation” Nate Parker turned down $20 million from Netflix in order to ensure “Nation” had a wide release, proving that the memory and legacy of slavery must be remembered and confronted. Ironically taking back the title of the 1915 heavily racist film and beginning with a quote from commonly-known slave-owner Thomas Jefferson, “Nation” is a powerful, important and deeply religious take at the era of slavery.
The story begins in Turner’s childhood, where he grows up with his mother and grandmother on a cotton plantation. As a young boy, Nat is shown as a natural leader and teaches himself how to read, prompting the plantation owner Elizabeth Turner, played by Penelope Ann Miller, to take him into the home, further teaching him and having him preach at church. When her husband dies however, Nat is forced to begin working in the cotton field, which he continues into his adulthood.
Although they were friends as kids, the now-plantation owner Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) controls Nat as a slave. In an effort to raise money and save his plantation, Sam begins to travel around various plantations, having Nat preach the bible to other slaves. Nat, who is deeply religious, has his character gradually destroyed as he reads horribly racist passages to fellow slaves, and he is seen as a traitor in the tightly-knit slave community. This dehumanization makes it all the more rewarding when Nat’s rhetoric eventually turns from submissive to subversive, eventually leading a rebellion and freedom movement of slaves.
Often accounted as the worst aspect of slaver, the separation and destruction of families, is tragically portrayed in “Nation,” through Nat’s relationship with fellow slave Cherry, played brilliantly by Aja Naomi King. Often times, the film is very hard to watch because of this emotional torment and the physical brutality and unflinching imagery. The revolt of the slaves is both intense and powerful, and the ending, paired with the iconic and emotional tunes of “Strange Fruits,” evokes strong echoes of modern day racism and police brutality.
Perhaps the most predominant and prevailing theme of the film is faith and religion, and through the story and symbolic imagery there is a clear intended parallel between Turner and Jesus at the end of the film.
“The Birth of a Nation” is an impressive and confident directorial debut for Nate Parker, with an equally impressive performance and screenplay by him. Although some of the secondary characters are not quite as fleshed out as they could be, this film’s extreme importance and significance sing far truer than its minimal flaws.
Runtime: 120 minutes
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4
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