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BIRTH OF A NATION, THE (director/writer: Nate Parker; screenwriter: Jean McGianni Celestin; cinematographer: Elliot Davis; editor: Steven Rosenblum; music: Henry Jackman; cast: Nate Parker (Nat Turner), Tony Espinosa (Nat as a child), Armie Hammer (Samuel Turner), Penelope Ann Miller (Elizabeth Turner), Jackie Earle Haley (Raymond Cobb) Mark Boone Jr. (Reverend Zalthall), Colman Domingo (Hank), Aunjanue Ellis (Nancy), Dwight Henry (Isaac Turner), Aja Naomi King (Cherry), Esther Scott (Bridget), Roger Guenveur Smith (Isaiah), Gabrielle Union (Esther); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Nate Parker/Kevin Turen/Aaron L. Gilbert /Preston L. Holmes /Jason Michael Berman; Fox Searchlight; 2016)
“Not a work of great artistic merit.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the debut feature as a director of Nate Parker. It’s based on a story Parker wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin. It’s the volatile but leaden history lesson of slavery set against the antebellum South. The title is lifted from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic that featured the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed blacks as inferior to whites. That film had a tremendous impact on white America. While this minor film takes the view of the Negro, but fails to arouse the same sympathies for its celebration of justifiable black rage as Griffith’s film did for white rage in the south under rule by the north. Its main problem is that the director is stiff as an actor and the film is not a work of great artistic merit, while Griffith’s silent version is questionable on moral grounds but is nevertheless a work of great cinema artistry.We first see Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa) as a gentle young boy growing up on a plantation in Virginia’s Southampton County where he is recognized as intellectually gifted by the master’s sympathetic wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and taught to read the Bible. The plantation is filled with horrors, but the grown Nat (Nate Parker) is protected by the master’s son Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), his childhood friend. At a slave auction, the slave and the master’s sonare still friends from childhood, and Samuel buys Cherry (Aja Naomi King) to become Nat’s wife. Because of Nat’s passionate reading of the Bible the other slaves refer to him as “The Prophet,” and Samuel’s fellow slave-owners cynically use him to quell unrest among the slaves. While preaching on the road, Turner is asked by the slave-owners to justify slavery by referring to its acceptance in the Bible. After witnessing many atrocities against his people, the last straw for Turner, the film’s most powerful moment, is when the preacher of peace witnesses a slave on a hunger strike force-fed after having his teeth knocked out. From then on Turner’s biblical path is through revenge.In 1831, in Southampton County, Nat leads the bloodiest slave rebellion in U.S. history that left 60 slave-owners and family members slaughtered by axes and knives. In retaliation, 200 blacks were butchered. In “The Birth of a Nation,” Parker chooses to ignore things that don’t fit his sanitized agenda, like the fact that Turner’s rebels slaughtered 14 white women and 31 infants and children. Instead he chooses to glorify Nat as a god-like figure even if he found violence as an answer to slavery as justifiable. Parker’s problematic film raises too many red flags about its hero to help the ongoing healing process in a still divided America.

REVIEWED ON 11/24/2016 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”