He SAID: The Birth of a Classic

Scott F. Evans

The following is a review of Nate Parker’s film, The Birth of a Nation. It is not another rehash of his past allegations, nor is it an unfair projection of those charges onto this work. I have no interest in retrying him in the court of public opinion. I will not be address  topics of “toxic masculinity”, rape culture, the meaning of consent, personal responsibility, or the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. If you’re looking for a commentary on those things as they relate (or not) to The Birth of a Nation, there are literally dozens of pieces all over the web devoted to that pursuit. It is this writer’s opinion that Parker’s past is irrelevant to this film.

Now that we’ve gotten that shit out of the way…

birth-6Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is nearly a masterpiece. It’s a little pretentious and some scenes suffer under the limited budget. But beyond that, this film works on just about every level. While its main strengths are in the performances, Parker and cinematographer Elliot Davis turn in a very attractive looking piece. I don’t think the cinematography will win any awards, but visually it is an elegant motion picture. This is Parker’s first feature film and he already has a strong sense of pacing and control. The film moves along at a good clip and he brings the run time in at a manageable two hours. That may sound short for a historical bio, but Nat Turner’s story doesn’t feel shortchanged. The common practice in modern cinema seems to be padding these stories out to two and a half or three hours. Parker keeps it tight, hitting us with just enough to craft a more than satisfying character study.

Which is what The Birth of a Nation actually is. The film’s name and advertising are a little misleading. This is not the sprawling epic the title suggests. Instead it’s an examination of how Nat Turner goes from being an unwitting tool of oppression to an instrument of liberation. Make no mistake, this movie is about Nat Turner. The other characters, his wife, fellow slaves, slave-owners and catchers all service Turner’s arc. Parker focuses solely on what makes Turner tick. He explores the environment, and the circumstances that cause a man, raised as property and taught to teach tolerance and peace to his brothers and sisters, to rise up to fight for their freedom. Other characters have minor arcs as well. Nat’s owner, Samuel Turner played by Armie Hammer, goes from being a fairly benign presence in Nat’s life to an outright adversary. Aja Naomi King gives Nat’s wife Cherry some nice levels, taking the character from near feral to quietly dignified to supportive radical. Aunjanue Ellis, Coleman Domingo, and Jackie Earle Haley also give solid and memorable performances.

But The Birth of a Nation is about Nat Turner, and Parker dives into this role… giving us an acting class on nuance, stillness and power… both internal and expressive. Turner is a slave, so he’s forbidden to speak out against the horrors he sees. But Parker shows us through subtle facial expressions and changes in his eyes, exactly how Turner feels about these events. We see him fight to maintain control as his manhood is stripped away from him day after day. He struggles to contain himself as he sees how his sermons are used to control other slaves. Even when he finally explodes, it’s a contained fury. Many actors would go big at these moments. But Parker stays within the character he created. He plays Turner with a consistent level of strength. Even in emotional moments, you can see Turner is always in control of himself. Parker plays Turner with a kind of power rarely seen in modern black male leading roles.

“Oh no, not another slave movie…”

Yes, another slave movie, but here’s the difference. The Birth of a Nation is a tough, uncompromising film. But it’s also an empowering one. The slave characters have agency and are active participants in achieving their goals. There’s no sitting around waiting for white saviors. And while the ending may seem tragic, that’s only the surface level. Even as the rebellion is put down, the characters are even triumphant in defeat. They stood up and died free.

See The Birth of a Nation in theaters.

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He SAID: The Big Short

Scott F. Evans

Let’s get this out of the way: The Big Short is not a ‘date’ movie. It is not a crowd pleaser. You cannot allow distractions while watching. You certainly cannot ‘turn off your brain’ and expect to get anything out of this film. It’s a demanding sit that requires a familiarity with recent economic events, and at least the big shortrudimentary knowledge of the financial world.

Adam McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph don’t exactly hold your hand as they tell this complicated story, but they don’t leave us in the dark either. The Big Short tells the story of a small group of financial players who predicted the 2007-2010 housing market crash, and got rich by betting against it. As such, the script requires a lot of exposition for those of us that don’t work on the fringes of Wall Street. So if you don’t really understand what credit default swaps or collateral debt obligations mean, don’t worry. McKay’s and Randolph’s witty script will guide you through it.

Mostly.

Instead of trying to simplify the finance-speak, characters break the fourth wall and explain exactly what’s going on at that moment. Surprisingly, this very theatrical gimmick works. And it doesn’t hurt that the script isn’t afraid to be profanely funny while breaking this stuff down into basic layman terms.

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McKay, known primarily for broad comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, trades in his normal conventional style for a slightly dated quasi-documentary approach. His handheld camera is busy and intrusive. It zooms and panTHE BIG SHORTs around scenes so frequently that it is initially asdistracting as some of the lead actors’ wigs. But McKay and company are able to pull you past it as we’re introduced to the characters and the story unfolds.

The Big Short boasts a stellar ensemble cast with Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and co-producer Brad Pitt all putting in solid work. Bale particularly plays against type as Dr. Michael Burry, an eccentric financial analyst who first discovers the impending the big short threecollapse. The character is full of afflictions (he’s got Asperger’s Syndrome as well as a glass eye) and could have easily turned into a standard comic figure. But Bale keeps it reigned in, turning in a believable (if showy) performance. Carell and Gosling, as money manager Mark Baum and trader Jared Vennett are excellent in roles almost tailor-made for them. Pitt is subdued but convincing as retired capitol investor Ben Rickert.

The Big Short is like The Wolf of Wall Street’s conscious younger cousin. It shows you all of the rampant corruption. But where Wolf wallowed in the excess, Short is sickened by it all. It’s a smart film that’s definitely worth seeing.

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But don’t go looking for a breezy time at the movies. Buckle up: it’s going to be an interesting ride.

RATING: Theater