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Black rage in The Birth of a Nation, countering Holocaust Denial and more VIFF picks

Also Two Lovers and a Bear with Tatiana Maslany and The Girl on the Train with Emily Blunt 

The Birth of a Nation is the most prominent of the four new movies this week and John Mann’s valiant struggles with early onset Alzheimer’s leads my picks to see at the Vancouver International Film Festival this weekend.

Here’s the list:

The Birth of a Nation:  3 stars

Denial: 4

The Girl on the Train: 2

Two Lovers and a Bear: 3 ½

VIFF: Spirit Unforgettable, Neruda, Strangers on the Earth

 THE BIRTH OF A NATION: Be warned. You won’t be able to shake the controversy this film is mired in; the old rape charge against the star, writer, director Nate Parker that ended in acquittal 17 years ago but has re-surfaced as a hot debate.

At least three scenes will remind you including a rape that’s been written into the story and seems to conflict with history. It’s there to help justify the horrible violence about to be re-enacted from a brief slave rebellion in Virginia two decades before the civil war.

But in this context, with your mind wandering right out of the film a few times, the effect is hobbled. There’s power here but it feels manufactured. 

The main and most valuable part of the film tries to explain why Nat Turner was driven to lead the revolt, which was essentially a revenge-killing of whites. As a boy, he’s treated well by his owners, allowed to play with the master’s son and taught to read (chiefly the Bible).

When he’s an adult, and played by Parker, things change. He becomes a preacher out in the barn and is then taken around to other plantations to advise their slaves to “submit yourself to your masters.”

He experiences a gradual awakening when he sees slaves there being mistreated and abused and then an abrupt switch to rage. His childhood friend, now his master (Armie Hammer) turns against him and his wife (Aja Naomi King), who he got his master to buy for him, is raped by slave catchers who are always roaming around.

A contentious Bible passage, Samuel’s order to kill all the Amalekites, gives him the final push.

 

Parker plays him as a hero, not the twisted religious zealot he may have been. He only skims over the morality of his actions and in today’s racial climate that doesn’t help.

The film is worth seeing for its sense of time and place and its passion but tough to take in parts for its brutality. It was largely financed by a Burnaby company and wowed both the critics and the audience at Sundance. (5th Avenue, Scotiabank and a few suburban theatres) 3 out of 5  

DENIAL: Like Woman in Gold last year, this film deals with the Holocaust indirectly, through characters affected by it years later. This one is one long examination and argument about it in court.

Did it really happen?  That’s at issue after an English denier, David Irving, sued an American historian, Deborah E. Lipstadt, for libel for saying he was a denier. In the English legal system she had to prove she’s right and that included proving that the Holocaust did happen.

 

Most of the film is directly about the case, initially the preparation, research and debate over tactics. Should she testify? Do they bring in survivors? There’s a grim visit to Auschwitz where we learn the Nazis had destroyed the key evidence.

Then the trial which we get at length.  Rachel Weisz, as Lipstadt, speaks in a shaky American accent but perfectly captures the energy of the determined woman. Tom Wilkinson is elegant as the head of her legal team and Timothy Spall does Irving as unctuous and fussy. The film, scripted David Hare, is talky, naturally enough, and very smart. (5th Avenue) 4 out of 5

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