Movie Reviews: The Birth of a Nation and The Greasy Strangler

Slavery days revisited and a really bad bad movie.

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BN
Fox Searchlight

Can there be too many movies about black slavery in America? Not as long as there are new generations to be instructed in its abominable particulars, most likely, and not as long as its corrosive legacy continues to fester. The Birth of a Nation, the new movie by actor, writer and first-time director Nate Parker, takes up the subject once again, with mixed results. In recounting the story of Nat Turner, leader of a celebrated slave rebellion in 1831 Virginia, Parker gives us most of the familiar horrors: the whippings, the lynchings, the casual rapes. But he also devises fresh images: the sight of two plantation children at play, with a little white girl happily leading a little black girl around by a noose fastened to her neck, says as much about the soul-crushing inhumanity of black bondage as the movie's more gruesome scenes.

Unfortunately, in his determination to avoid turning the film into an exercise in pure rage, Parker has extended his story into areas of melodrama that recall the sentimental historical epics of Hollywood's golden age. We see the young Nat, tutored by a kindly white woman, engrossed in reading a Bible by the hearth light in his family's rough cabin. (Other books, his mentor tells him, "are full of things your folk wouldn't understand.") And while Parker's depiction of the love between Turner (played by Parker himself) and a battered slave girl called Cherry (a luminous Aja Naomi King) has a sweet delicacy, it also flirts with cliché, and it slows the movie's momentum.

Parker lays out the necessarily presumptive details of Turner's life at a languid pace. As a boy, Nat is told by a slave shaman that "you're a child of God. You got a purpose." We see his childhood friendship with plantation scion Samuel Turner (played as a grownup by Armie Hammer) slowly devolve into the master-slave relationship decreed by their culture. When not laboring in the cotton fields, Nat begins preaching the gospel to his fellow slaves. This draws the attention of a scheming white minister (Mark Boone Jr.), who wants to use Nat's evangelical charisma to convince potentially rebellious slaves to accept their miserable lot in life. Nat goes along with this at first, quoting Biblical justifications of slavery. But his obedience is withered by the terrible things he sees on his travels among the local plantations. (One desperate slave, embarked on a hunger strike, has his teeth knocked out by a hammer and chisel to facilitate forced feeding.) Soon Nat is declaiming the Good Book's numerous condemnations of the "peculiar institution," and asking the Lord to "be an enemy to our enemies."

The story naturally culminates in Turner's famous revolt, in which he leads dozens of slaves bearing knives and hatchets in a spasm of retribution that ends with the deaths of dozens of white men, women and children. (Parker doesn't shy away from showing us this rampage.) In the end, with the rebellion crushed, Turner calmly submits to a hideous fate.

Parker, possibly distracted by the challenges of directing the movie, is a little too mild in his portrayal of Turner—he's not entirely convincing as an obsessive revolutionary. He also makes some awkward pictorial choices (like the shot in which Turner holds an ear of corn in his hand, watching as it begins to ooze blood). And the scene in which we see a long line of black corpses hanging from trees is undermined by the decision to accompany this haunting image with Nina Simone's rendition of "Strange Fruit"—a slightly jarring anachronism.

But the movie is filled with fine black actors, and you can't help wondering how many of their careers will be limited to race-centric movies like this one in the future. Will slavery narratives ever reach the point of diminishing returns? In a video posted to Instagram last May, Snoop Dogg, railing against a remake of the slave narrative Roots, expressed an angry concern on this subject. "They going to just keep beating that shit into our heads about how they did us…?" he said. "Fuck that old shit."

The Greasy Strangler
Drafthouse Films

The Greasy Strangler

The Greasy Strangler is a would-be midnight movie that's been drawing chortles of astonishment on the festival circuit all year long. Now it's coming to a theater nowhere near you. The film is a demonstration of the fact that a true midnight movie must be more than just bad. The works of Ed Wood and Tommy Wiseau, titans of cinéma mauvais, may be awash in technical insufficiency, but their nitwit passion is oddly winning. Strangler is something else. It's a hipster calculation that attempts to sell moronic incoherence as ironic artistry. It fails at this—resoundingly—because, among other things, it's just too boring.

The story is a feeble hodge-podge. A father and son named Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) and Big Brayden (Sky Elobar) eke out a living giving guided "disco tours" of Los Angeles (or at least those drab precincts of the city where a movie like this can be shot with little objection). Ronnie is a tall, bony egomaniac; Brayden a droopy tub of a man. Ronnie has ridiculously over-styled shoulder-length hair, and both men wear pink shorts and tops out on the street. Their tours are a dubious enterprise (one shrine on their list is a store where "Kool of Kool & the Gang" once worked), but they're modestly successful. When a roly-poly woman named Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) shows up for the excursion one day, Brayden is instantly attracted to her, much to Ronnie's annoyance (he fears a disruption in "the family business").

In the house that they share, Brayden spends a lot of time cooking Ronnie's favorite food, all of it greasy—although the sausages and bacon rolls he turns out are never greasy enough, and always require additional latherings of fatty goo. "Why don't you put a little grease in your coffee?" Ronnie suggests.

In his off-hours, Ronnie roams the city as the Greasy Strangler, wearing a sort of grease suit that would never pass muster in even the cheesiest post-'50s horror movie. He punches holes in people's faces and more than once eats their eyeballs. There's quite a bit of in-your-face farting, I'm afraid, and a lot of ultra-dumb sex talk ("I'm the Spider-Man of Cock Town," Ronnie brags). There's also more full-frontal nudity than anyone might wish to see. (None of these people should ever be nude, possibly even at home alone.)

The movie isn't just un-funny; it's not even amusing. The actors—not all of whom may have yet scored a SAG card—sound as if they're reading their dialogue off a toilet-stall wall. There are long pointless rants that exceed the limits of simple tedium. The crowded interiors suggest that director Jim Hosking once saw a David Lynch movie, and the exteriors are lit as if by headlights positioned just off camera. The score is a procession of sorry sub-Residents synth wheezlings. I won't go on.

Of course it's uncool to point out the abundant shortcomings of an intended cult movie like this—you're supposed to let its vapid inanity just wash over you. Better advice: step out of the way.

NEXT: Libertarian Debate News: L.P. To Get a Day in Court Against Debate Access Restrictions, But Too Late for 2016; Florida Senate Candidate Paul Stanton Excluded from Debate

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  1. rape.

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  3. The Progressive Left has a deep seated need to tell themselves the story of American Slavery, to reassure themselves that the Democrat elitist swine who practiced it are different from their wonderful selves. And since they really aren’t, they have to keep repeating the narrative.

    1. ..but they are different. The Antebellum Democrat elitist swine only wanted to enslave blacks. The current SJW Democrat Elitist Swine want to enslave everyone.

      1. Nonsense; the Plantation Aristocracy used Slavery to lord it over the poor Southern Whites, too.

    2. “No no no. The Democrats who practiced slavery and later opposed integration weren’t real Democrats. They were yellow-dog democrats who were really Republicans in disguise. Later on they became official Republicans (some of them converted posthumously) who to this day are racist unreconstructed rebels. And Lincoln wasn’t really Republican.”

  4. Even the New Yorker’s critic, Vinson Cunningham, panned this movie. It is apparently so bad that even virtue signalling SJW’s find off putting.

  5. “Birth of a Nation” no thank you, Hollysuck has run that white guilt, leftist bull shit into the fucking ground and I am god damn sick of it. Yeah slavery sucked and we need to learn from it but give me a fucking break. They try to make it sound like every god damn white person in the south owned a slave when it was less than one percent, but this doesn’t fit Remakewood’s narrative so it is never discussed. “Greasy Strangler” on the other hand I want to see!!! Kurt can be a real stick in the mud, and when he type-sneers(I made that word up) the line “hipsters” I’ve got to laugh, he should look in the mirror, his review had me laughing my ass off, in fact his review changed my brothers mind on the movie, he now wants to see it too.

  6. The promos for “Birth…” here in California insert video clips of Black Lives Matter demonstrations with clips from the film. I guess the implication being that nothing has changed from 1831 and the slave revolt is still happening today. These movies will continue to be made (and the nation’s sins wallowed in) as long as the political party that runs Hollywood feels the need to keep it’s largest voting block angry.

  7. Both of these movies could use Alec Baldwin in the same role of an angry drunk gay hating liberal.

  8. Here I had assumed someone had remade the 1915 ‘Birth of a Nation’. I wasn’t sure who thought that would be profitable in modern society. I probably shouldn’t watch this version because if I say that I like it I am ambiguously supporting the formation of the KKK.

    1. I thought this had something to do with the originally titled BOAN also, when I first saw a trailer on TV that did not make it clear this would be a Nat Turner biopic, Clearly the title is intentional but Im not clear as to what the connection is supposed to be after reading the review, other than that both films are focused on a small race war. Im kindof disappointed. A remake of the turn of the century Klan Klassic could be an interesting undertaking. A few years ago there was a re-edited version making the rounds in NYC.

  9. “…there [cannot] be too many movies about black slavery in America…as long as its corrosive legacy continues to fester. ”

    It would be more appropriate to say “as long as its corrosive legacy was reinfected and forced to fester.” Up through the 1950s, even preceding the civil-rights movement, as the black middle class was growing, studies indicated that while slavery was of course an important historical fact, American blacks did not consider it to be a motive force in their everyday lives. In the wake of the civil-rights movement and the family-destructive imposition of the Great Society programs, slavery started to be re-emphasized by Democrats and professional race hustlers as the reason that oppression of blacks by whites was incessant and inevitable, to the point that a Democratic president of the United States declared that racism was in our national DNA. The Democrats practiced slavery, they created the KKK as their terrorist arm after slavery was abolished, and they are today exploiting slavery as a wedge dividing American society.

    1. Look I think that there are problems with films like this that use the “real life story” of an actual person or event as a jumping off point for a fictional narrative. I think that process necessarily creates ethical issued and lends itself to creating a nation of buffoons whose understanding of foreign policy is more likely to be informed by Zero Dark Thirty than a newspaper, whose knowledge of history will be based on Saving Private Ryan and not a textbook.

      With that said, I dont see why this thread is dominated by partisan handwringing. Slavery remains a crtical part of our nations founding and it should be discussed for as long as understanding history remains important (forever). Particularly in an election between two truly awful white people, Im at a loss as to why a Nat Turner biopic is seen as a Hillary campaign ad. If anything, an armed antislavery revolt would be something libertarians could at least in theory support. We arent talking about the Civil war, after all, these were folks who for a brief moment reclaimed their right to selfownership through selfdefense. Are you guys worried that the DNC is telling black folks in the ghetto to start shooting back at police or something? If not Im failing to understand how this film has anything to do with Team Red or Team Blue

  10. The Birth of a Nation is the comedy hit of the year!. It’s written and directed by one of the most far left individuals in America. What makes it so funny is that the far left are angry with this person of color because he may have, (probably not) raped a college girl.And, AND he’s angry with them for being angry at him! I can’t stop laughing.

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  13. Remakes are never as good as the originals…

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