BIRTH OF A NATION – Review by Susan Granger

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I’m incredibly conflicted about this film. Writer/director/actor Nate Parker has created a searing, powerful Civil War drama, revolving around an 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. Set on cotton plantations in Southampton County, Virginia, it reveals that, as a child, Nat (Tony Espinosa) was recognized by an African tribal shaman as a potential prophet/leader. And he’s encouraged to read the Bible by his master’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller). Read on…

Years later, Nat (Nate Parker) becomes a Baptist preacher. Amid rumors of insurrection, he’s rented out by his alcoholic owner (Armie Hammer), travelling to neighboring plantations to spread his gospel of subservience and peace.

That’s before brutal acts of traumatic violence turn soulful Nat into a mythic crusader, experiencing intense religious visions and viewing a solar eclipse as a sign from God to lead a ferociously bloody uprising that claimed 60 white families and led to the slaughter of 200 blacks in retaliation.

Filled with heavy-handed symbolism, it’s, nevertheless, thoughtful and perceptive. But how do you separate the artist from his work?

Nate Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of raping an unconscious 18 year-old woman at Penn State. At their 2001 trial, Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty but appealed the verdict; a second trial was thrown out when the victim refused to testify again. She committed suicide in 2012.

Taking top honors at Sundance, selling for $17.5 million (the biggest in the festival’s history), “Birth” appeared to be the kind of African/American film about racism, faith and injustice that would appeal to Academy voters determined to acknowledge diversity. But will it now? It’s a moral dilemma.

FYI: Parker’s brutal portrayal of slavery depicts the rape of two women (Aja Naomi King & Gabrielle Union). And the title is the same as D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 silent film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Birth of a Nation” is an edgy, effective 8, yet tainted by the filmmakers’ shadow of shame.

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Susan Granger

Susan Granger

Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at R.K.O., M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures; her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M. As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O'Brien and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors in journalism. During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic. Her newspaper reviews have been syndicated around the world, and she has appeared on American Movie Classics cable television. In addition, her celebrity interviews and articles have been published in REDBOOK, PLAYBOY, FAMILY CIRCLE, COSMOPOLITAN, WORKING WOMAN and THE NEW YORK TIMES, as well as in PARIS MATCH, ELLE, HELLO, CARIBBEAN WORLD, ISLAND LIFE, MACO DESTINATIONS, NEWS LIMITED NEWSPAPERS (Australia), UK DAILY MAIL, UK SUNDAY MIRROR, DS (France), LA REPUBBLICA (Italy), BUNTE (Germany), VIP TRAVELLER (Krisworld) and many other international publications through SSG Syndicate. Susan also lectures on the "Magic and Mythology of Hollywood" and "Don't Take It Personally: Conquering Criticism and other Survival Skills," originally published on tape by Dove Audio.