Film Review: The Birth of a Nation


Photos Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nate Parker wrote, directed and stars in The Birth of a Nation, a well written, directed and powerfully acted film that depicts the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion. Nat Turner was born into slavery in Virginia and after learning to read the Bible and preach, primarily to other slaves, felt called by God to lead a violent uprising against slave owners and other white people. Turner believed this would be the catalyst for a rebellion of slaves throughout the South and the ending the horrific institution. The Birth of a Nation is also one of the most important films of the year. Following the 2013 Oscar winning film for best picture 12 Years A Slave, another historically based film that addressed and depicted slavery in the United States, The Birth of A Nation allows viewers to experience, if only in the slightest way, the utter horror and indignity of the evil institution.  Unlike 12 Years, there is no reunion or anything approaching a happy ending.


birth-3The Nat Turner rebellion lasted 48 hours and resulted in the deaths of between 55 and 65 slave owners, their families, and others in August of 1831. Though the rebellion only lasted 48 hours, it led to panic on the part of slave owners and white citizens throughout the south. In retaliation for the killings, southern militias and mobs killed over 200 slaves in addition to those who participated in the rebellion. Nat Turner was able to elude capture for 2 months before he was finally caught and hung. The rebellion also resulted in greater restrictions on slaves and free blacks including prohibiting education, the ability to assemble, and the possession of firearms.

As important as the film is in instilling awareness of the history and horrific reality of slavery, I cannot recall a time when I have felt as much ambivalence after watching a film. Following the screening of the film, the distributor asked for comments from press and bloggers.  As one who was there to watch and review the film from a faith perspective, the first thought I had was the shortest verse in The Bible, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35)

Watching the film, one feels rage at the brutally cruel and inhuman treatment inflicted on persons. Also, as a United Methodist pastor, I felt anger and rage at toward the clergyman who sought to profit from slavery, specifically from assisting birth-5Nat Turner’s owner in leasing him out to other slave owners to preach compliance to and instill the fear of God into, their slaves. It is no secret that Scripture has long been used to justify unrighteous actions of persons and nations toward others. And, although I have known most southern Churches or denominations, including Methodism, allowed or endorsed slavery, seeing the impact such support had on the enslaved individuals, disturbs the soul in addition to informing the mind. That clergy and others so distorted and misused the Gospel of Christ for such gain, or whatever reason, deepens even further the sadness and anger.

After viewing, I tried not to judge the character of Turner as presented in the film. Though I believe he was wrong to kill the slave owners, their families, and others, and in doing so went against the teaching and life example of Christ, I cannot say that I would not resort to similar violence were I in the same circumstance. After exposure to such horror and indignity, anger and a desire for vengeance can take over even the strongest resolve to resist resorting to violence and retaliation.  Yet, the killings of the slave owners and others, even as they oppressed and enslaved fellow children of God, saddened Christ as did the enslavement and inhumane treatment of other humans by those same slave owners.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught followers to resist the natural human urge to seek revenge or strike out against even one’s enemies or oppressors. Not only is such human instinct contrary to the way of the Kingdom of God, but it also destroys the one seeking revenge. Forgiveness is not only, or even primarily, for the perpetrator of an offense, it is the first and foremost instrument of healing for the victim.

Parker has stated that he chose to title the film The Birth of A Nation as a way to rbirth-8edress the false, racist presentation of African Americans, and the righteously heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan by D.W. Griffith in his technically groundbreaking, 1915 film The Birth of A Nation. While such presentations are in need of correction, Parker ironically follows in the footsteps of Griffith in misrepresentation; in this case, the teachings of Jesus and the expectations of discipleship. Parker has talked openly about his faith in Christ and his identity as a Christian.  He has also stated he considers Nat Turner to be a hero for being the spark that would culminate in, through the Civil War and the ending of slavery, the birth of a new nation.

As stated earlier it is hard to condemn Turner for turning to violence in the face of such oppressive and brutal treatment put upon him, his family, and millions of other slaves.  It misrepresents, however, the teachings of Christ and is contrary to the call of discipleship to countenance Turner’s actions, even against his oppressors. The call of Jesus to Nate Parker, myself, and all disciples is not to seek or celebrate the birth of a new nation through violence or any other means. It is instead to seek through Christ-like living, the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom, where revenge has no place and one has access only by the grace and forgiveness of God.

Even in the midst of the ambiguity residing within the historically based story, and the opinions of Nate Parker, The Birth of A Nation is an important film to watch because of the insight into the reality of the institution of slavery and what it was to be enslaved. While it is important to know and remember history, it is also, if not more important to understand history. Experiencing in even the mildest way the horror of slavery is vital to understanding the profound impact it had and still has on this nation, and prevent even wisps of such thinking and actions from rekindling.

The Birth of a Nation is rated R for violent content and brief nudity.

In writing the review of the film, I chose not to address in the body of the review the controversy regarding Nate Parker and his acquittal of a charge of sexual assault in 1999 while he was a student at Penn State. Click link for coverage of the incident, trial, and aftermath.

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The Magnificent Seven

Remaking a classic among classic films is where most directors should fear to tread. In remaking The Magnificent Seven, one of the most recognized American Westerns and is itself a reimagining of one of the greatest films in all of Cinema, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Antoine Fuqua proves his fearlessness.


Photos Courtesy MGM

The Magnificent Seven effectively combines the best of Westerns past and present, an array of strong characters with checkered pasts, magnificent scenery, an against all odds story, witty banter, and sound effects that put you in the middle of all the action. Also crucial to Westerns is an unforgettable musical score that complements the majestic cinematography and action. No Western and few film scores equal Elmer Bernstein’s famous music from the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven, which in many ways served as the 8thand most magnificent character. The spirit of Bernstein’s supreme achievement is felt through the James Horner and Simon Franglen score (Franglen completed Horner’s composition following his 2015 death.) As with the 1960 version, The Magnificent Seven has a strong cast that all give very solid performances. Director Antoine Fuqua intentionally made the cast of the seven diverse, not only to reflect the times of today but to reflect the diversity of the film’s setting, the late 1800’s.

The Magnificent Seven shares the same storyline as the previous “Sevens” where a town of hapless, ill-equipped farmers hires a band of misfit but supremely talented outlaws to help them stand and fight for their town against a mercenary army of thugs and villains. mag-7-1Denzel Washington stars as Sam Chisolm, a legendary bounty hunter with a past, who agrees to accept the pleas of town spokesperson and newest widow, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) when he hears the notoriously vicious industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) was the murderer and leader. As a bounty hunter Chisolm knows who’s who among the territory’s criminals and gunfighters and recruits six others to join the against all odds endeavor. While they are promised “everything” by the town’s people, it’s either the challenge or the opportunity for redemption that calls them.

While not a faith film, God is referenced throughout The Magnificent Seven. As has become somewhat commonplace in Film in recent years, much of the violence occurs in and around the church. In what has to be the most juxtaposed homage in film history, The Magnificent Seven opens with the townspeople of Rose Creek debating the fate of their town against the onslaught of mag-7-5Bartholomew Bogue and his gang, not unlike the townspeople of Rock Ridge lamenting the demise of their fair town in Blazing Saddles.  Unlike Rock Ridge, however, there are no Johnsons, or “Revry,” in Rose Creek, but there is danger, greed, and evil that descends upon the meeting with deadly consequences.  The film concludes in and around the town’s church. In between, there are references to God’s will, strength, and fecklessness.

Following in the steps of Pale Rider, The Searchers, High Plains Drifter, among others, The Magnificent Seven shows the uneasy place faith and the Church had in the West and has in much of society today. While the Emmanuel Church occupies the center of the town, the presentation of Church, and God, throughout much of The Magnificent Seven is anything but central to life in the West. In contrast to the meaning of the name of the church,  God is not believed by many townspeople to be “with us,” and is most often presented as either vacant and or out of date and place.

As is often the case, films reflect societal beliefs, ways of being, and ways of living. As is so often encountered today among persons in and outside of faith, there is a lot of bad theology in The Magnificent Seven. There is the typical “If God had intended…”, and “It is God’s will…”  Some of such statements and like actions in the film are mocking God, others just misunderstand God.

mag-7-2When trying to convince Chisolm to accept their offer and plea, Emma Cullen states why and what she is seeking,” I seek righteousness. But I’ll take revenge.” Whether or not recognized, such is the sentiment of many persons of faith today. Christ calls to love one’s enemy and to resist returning evil for evil. Christ teaches that it is better to suffer than retaliate.  Yet such teaching is hard to follow when put to the test in the “real world” as constructed by society. In a time when a prominent evangelical pastor states, in order to support a political candidate, that one who follows the Sermon on the Mount is unfit to serve as President of the United States, one sees how hard it is to follow the teachings of Christ. While this statement is more explicit than most recognize and would admit, it is a sentiment many if not most in society and perhaps the church accept. When seeing this reflection of our society in this film, one has to realize how close our society, including the faithful, is to the setting of the film, when the church and teaching of her Lord were centrally located in the town, but not truly central in the life of the Town’s people.

mag-7-7Yet, there are in the film, as in the world and in the community of faith, glimpses of the grace and hope that are central to the life and teaching of Christ. And, as is often the case with the followers of Christ, it is the community where such is often experienced when characters face their crises of faith and character. Although Emma was willing if not wanting to take revenge, she becomes, if not an instrument of righteousness, a protector of another from a profane and ultimate act of revenge that likely would have led to the death of the character’s soul if not body.

Chisolm, in what is a guiding principal in his life, states on several occasions, “what was lost in the fire is found in the ashes.” In The Magnificent Seven, as in life, much is lost. But, for those who accept the Gospel and follow the teachings and life of Christ, there is also grace, redemption, life, and hope found in the cross.

The Magnificent Seven is rated PG-13 for violence

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Photos Courtesy of FilmNation

Clint Eastwood’s Sully is a compelling film recounting the January 2009 forced water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 after bird strikes knocked out both engines shortly after take-off from New York City’s La Guardia Airport.  While most Americans are familiar with the images of the plane landing and floating in the water, passengers standing on the wings awaiting rescue of by ferries and other boats, and the mild-mannered Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, (Tom Hanks) who engineered the unprecedented landing. It is what happened after the landing that is the subject of the film.

The film begins in the days following the incident as federal investigators attempt to determine if the water landing, miraculous as it was, was necessary. Did Captain Sullenberger heroically save all 155 souls on board, or did he needlessly endanger them by not trying to land at an airport? In the film, the passengers and crew had barely been able to dry off before there were reports that simulators had indicated the plane could have made it to LaGuardia or Teterboro airports.  Sully’s instincts, however, had told him he could not have made it.

As with most films about real events, some aspects of the water landing and the aftermath are altered so as to increase the drama to sustain a feature length film. The antagonism of the NTSB investigators seemed forced and stereotypical; so as to inject additional drama into what was already a dramatic story. sully-4The process and findings of the investigation, though condensed in the film, were similar to the original inquiry. Also, the effect of the event on Sullenberger, though perhaps overly dramatic as presented in the film, does indicate the power of traumatic events even when they are short-lived and have positive outcomes.

While the action sequences surrounding the flight, landing, and rescue are gripping and flawlessly presented, Sully features the light, low-key directorial touch that has become an Eastwood trademark.  Eastwood’s noted relaxed approach to shooting lends to a tranquil feel in many of his films and such is the case for Sully. This understated aspect is appropriate for this film as it reflects the calm, controlled demeanor so often exhibited by pilots and air traffic control professionals.

sully-6In what is another masterful performance by one of Film’s most accomplished and versatile actors, Tom Hanks quickly disappears into the role of Sully Sullenberger. In playing someone so unassuming and so familiar with the audience, Hanks conveys the subtle complexity of the reserved Sully’s life during the time following the crash when he was being both hailed as a hero as well as investigated for endangering the 155 lives for which he was responsible. Cast into a limelight he does not desire, Sully does what he does best as a pilot, manages the situation, including his emotions and his reticence to accept the notoriety and moniker of hero.

Though the majority of the film focuses on the investigation of the landing and the impact on Sullenberger, it also details his 40 years of flying. After learning to fly as a teen, Sully does a stint in the Air Force and flies for US Airways for almost 35 years, delivering over a million passengers safely. sully-7All of these experiences were called upon during the 200 plus seconds of flight 1549. While considered miraculous, the landing was anything but a miracle. It was instead the product of instinct, training, steady nerves, and decisive action.

That Sully was able to make decisive decisions under extreme stress and then marshal skills enough to accomplish what had never been done before, is indicative of the importance of training, instinct and preparedness. Only if Sully had been able to achieve the water landing without all of his training and experience would the events of January 15th, 2009 been miraculous.

While miracles are a part of faith, they are of God, not people. Preparations through spiritual disciplines establish and strengthen relationships between followers and God. Prayer, worship, the study of Scripture,  fellowship with, and service to, others are tools that foster spiritual growth and equip persons of faith with instinct and abilities to be able to respond when life forces one into powerless glides. Sully demonstrates that losing engines at less than 3000 feet is not the time to develop skills and instinct for deciding and executing a forced water landing. Likewise, waiting until a life crisis is not the best time to begin living by faith. One is best able to respond to challenges when one is already connected to and living by the hope and assurance one realizes and receives from God.

 Sully is rated PG-13

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In Case You Missed It Film Review “United 93”

On this the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 I am reposting my review of the powerful film of that day.


In Case You Missed It Film Review “United 93”In Case You Missed It Film Review “United 93”I wrote this review for my local church paper for the release of “United 93” in 2006.

United We Stand

The highest achievement in cinema is when a film transcends the medium and is experienced rather than simply seen.  United 93 joins the very short list of films, most recently Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryanwhere viewers emotionally experience the event rather than simply watch the retelling.  These films allowed viewers to simulate in the slightest of ways what it was like to be a victim of the holocaust or a soldier hitting the D-Day beaches. Through masterful direction, realistic and straightforward dialogue, and a passion for telling, not dramatizing, a story that must be told, viewers truly become involved in the story.  Writer / director Paul Greengrass uses these elements…

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What’s In A Name: 9/11 Reflection


9-11 7On the first anniversary of 9/11 I was pastor at First United Methodist church in Farmersville Texas. As on the day of the attack we worshipped on the first anniversary. It was a powerful worship service. In many ways more powerful than the service on 9/11 as the numbness had dissipated but our world had been changed for a year. As it had been a year all the victims had been accounted for. It was very powerful to see all those names, at first on the computer screen and then printed on page after page after page. The following was an article I wrote for the church paper the week leading up to the anniversary of 9/11.

What’s in a name? I forget who first coined the phrase, Homer, Shakespeare, Whitman, Cosby, or some anonymous advertising copywriter. Regardless who wrote it, the question still lingers. So many things are in…

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Reflections From and On 9/11

On the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11 I am reposting my thoughts from and reflections on that day that changed our nation and world.


9-11I was the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Farmersville Texas on 9/11/01. I had been there six weeks and was still getting to know the church and community. In the midst of the shock, chaos, fear, and planning a worship service for that evening, I tried to take time to jot down my feelings that day and the next. It’s still hard to imagine even as I remember.

Tuesday September 11, 2001
There is numbness that comes from witnessing dramatic events. This morning I awoke to the radio broadcasting a breaking story that a “small plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers.” ..9-11 2I immediately turned on the TV to see the coverage, and while watching the horrible pictures of smoke billowing from one of the towers right before my eyes I saw a plane fly into the picture and crash into the other…

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Film Review: Gleason


All Photos Courtesy of Exhibit A Productions

In the game of football months, sometimes years of training go into preparing for the seconds that occur after the ball is snapped. Although the tactics, strategies and plays can be very complicated, at its core, football is a simple game. Plays are called on both offense and defense, players execute their assignments and react to what their opponent brings to them. The team that responds better, with most determination to what the game brings, wins.

Steve Gleason was an eight-year NFL veteran with the New Orleans Saints. The biggest play in his career was when he blocked a punt that resulted in a touchdown on the fourth play of the first, post-Katrinagleason 6 game the Saints played in the Superdome. It is called the most important play in the history of the Saints as it led to them winning the game and was a symbolic turnaround for the entire region.  As big and significant as this play was in his career, the biggest play in Steve’s life began with the snap that was a diagnosis of ALS, the disease named after another athlete stricken in the prime of his life, Lou Gehrig.  As with most other ALS patients, doctors gave Steve between 2-5 years to live. As the disease progressed, he would lose the ability to move, speak, and without assistance from a ventilator, breathe.

Steve was diagnosed at the age of 34, two years following his retirement from football. Within 6 weeks of his diagnosis, Steve and his wife Michel discovered that they were expecting their first child. Still in the midst of coming to terms with his life-changing condition, Steve decided to live life to the fullest of his abilities even as he began to lose those skills. Additionally, Steve and Michel decided to document this time in life by creating a living video journal of his life so that his child would be able to know him, to see him move and hear his voice after he had lost those abilities.

Written and directed by Clay Tweel, Gleason is the story of Steve, Michel Varisco Gleason, son Rivers Gleason, and the rest of his family and friends as they all journey through life impacted by ALS.  As one can imagine there are times of great grief and loss as Steve’s physical condition diminishes through the film. As difficult as at times it is to watch the story on the screen, one can only imagine the emotional, physical, and spiritual pain experienced in life by Steve and those close to him.

gleason 3In addition to the hundreds of hours of video being a gift of Steve and Michel to Rivers, the film is a gift to all who watch it. Although grief is present like an uncredited character throughout the entire film, joy is also present.  While the grief brings a silent weight to the viewer, there is also a joy that sounds a greater hope that lightens the weight of grief even in the midst of the loss of bodily function that is continuously revealed throughout the film.

Part of the gift element is the film’s raw honesty of living life with ALS that Steve and Michel share.  While not dwelling excessively on valley periods, the film does not shy away from the physical, emotional and relational low moments.  The nuts and bolts reality of ALS’s physical deterioration, the accompanying medical issues, and the difficult conversations, and non-conversations that come with the hour by hour, day by day exhaustion of caring for a loved one, or being cared for by a loved one are included in this journal of life.

The other gift element of course is the “no white flags,” never give up spirit of Steve andgleason 8 Michel. There is joy in seeing their joy in living their lives. While theirs is not the life they thought they would live when they married, Steve and Michel do not surrender living life to ALS. Rather than focusing on Steve’s limitations, on what ALS has taken, they focus on the lives they can have.  As such they travel, they go, and they do as much as they can rather than sitting, grieving and waiting. They live out the challenge presented on the film’s poster. Steve and Michel “live with a purpose, “and they “love with a purpose.”

This spirit is a product of the faith that Steve and Michel not only have, but direct their lives. As with anyone struggling to overcome a life changing and challenging illness, the Gleason’s is a realized faith life. Of course, there are ups and downs and times of questioning, but those are but dips of faith, not pits of despair. Steve and Michel and all in their orbit know that there is something greater than Steve’s diagnosis and mortality. This reality and opportunity to live lives of realized faith is possible for all people. For Steve, it is just more evident.

While there are many Biblical passages lived out by Steve, Michel, and Rivers, some readily come to mind. In the fourth chapter in his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul tells the church to rejoice in Lord always, not to worry, and to make prayers known to God. In the sixth chapter of Matthew Jesus also teaches not to worry. One is not to worry about what one will eat, wear, or about one’s body or about tomorrow. And, in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews faith is presented as the substance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen.  While prayers, and a painfully documented trip to a faith healer, are not answered by a reversal of his condition, Steve and Michel do have faith in God to deliver hope. And God does. While viewers experience grief throughout the film, hope and joy are more abounding and realized.

In Hebrews 11 the writer also presents a roll call of Israel’s heroes of faith, including, Noah, Joseph,  Moses, and  Abraham, all of whom live as residents in an alien land. They live in, or as in, tents while hoping assuredly that one day they will live in homes and a nation whose foundations are designed and constructed by God. None of the heroes made it into the promised land, but they died seeing it. The writer of Hebrews was not ultimately referring to a nation or homes of this world, but to the coming Kingdom of God. Through Christ, those heroes of Israel, and all who have such faith, find and receive one’s final and true home.

gleason 21As Steve Gleason’s body is as inadequate and challenging as the tents the heroes of Israel lived in, he, and us like them, can see through faith that assured land of promise.  Steve and Michel and others whose spirit overpowers human frailty and brokenness are examples of faith that sees, experiences, and lives lives of assured hope.

Gleason is rated “R” for Language.

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