Now Playing: The Birth of a Nation


There is boldness and defiance written into the DNA of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, beginning with the pointed abduction of the title from D.W. Griffith’s century-old epic that is equal parts groundbreaking and despicable. The new film is about Nat Turner (played by Parker), a Virginia slave who led an 1831 rebellion that was the bloodiest, most successful insurrection against the oppressing Southern gentry until the U.S. Civil War. Ultimately short-lived — it lasted approximately forty-eight hours — the rebellion left over fifty whites dead before it was over. A roughly equal number of enslaved blacks were arrested and executed for the rebellion, with hundreds more murdered in acts of vicious and largely indiscriminate retribution.

The Birth of a Nation is the definition of a passion project. Parker is the director, writer, producer, and star (Jean McGianni Celestin shares a story credit). He worked on the screenplay as early as 2009, and at one point told his agents that he’d accept no further acting work until he got Nat Turner’s story made. Through its early passages, in particular, Parker’s film radiates the commanding certainty implied by its genesis.

In many respects, the film adheres to the rules of a conventional biopic, portraying the life of Nat Turner from his boyhood to his ugly death. That’s at odds with the currently prevailing methodology of focusing in on a more narrow but highly telling passage of a figure’s biography. All the narrative novelty required comes from the fetid ecosystem of U.S. slavery, still woefully under-depicted in cinema given the sizable and lingering stain it has left on the nation’s being. Even the bracing memory of the scalding, powerful 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, hasn’t offered immunizing strength against seeing the cruelty of slavery on screen. Parker may not reach the feverish, agonizing verisimilitude achieved by McQueen, but he does capture the appalling casualness of the crime against humanity. In his rendering of the various overlapping communities, Parker shows how the inertia of familiarity — set by power structures determined to preserve the monstrous injustice — was its own form of repression.There is faux safety and tiny, haunting tremors of happiness within the slave community, existing in quantities just large enough to engender a fear that it too can be stripped away if the basic decency of freedom and dignity is sought.

In his script and direction, Parker works this bitter notion, but it is his acting that makes the thesis charged. He signals the growing turmoil within Nat Turner as his uncommon gift for preaching God’s word takes him beyond the borders of the property where he is forcibly held, rented out by his enslaver (Armie Hammer, very good in depicting weakness masquerading as strength) to other local plantations, where Turner is put before fellow slaves to use religion as a taming cudgel. Given a chance to see the brutality with freshened eyes, Turner grows to realize that standing still in this existence is no existence at all, a conclusion only fortified when his wife, Cherry (the riveting Aja Naomi King), is violently assaulted by a band of slave hunters (the leader of which is played by Jackie Earle Haley, now celebrating ten years as the go-to for repugnant characters).

When Nat Turner finds his inner fortitude for fearless challenge, the movie loses some of its own. The final lap to the slave rebellion feels rushed, unfocused. The film doesn’t build and crescendo so much as it accidentally stumbles through a set entrance well ahead of its cue and tries to make up for the error with stammering bluster. It also falters by employing narrative tropes, such as the circling back of a chief villain, that are part of the lesson plan in Screenwriting 101 before they are witheringly untaught in Screenwriting 102. Parker, it seems, missed some sessions of the latter class.

Surely Parker can’t be faulted too much for succumbing to an instinct to turn The Birth of a Nation into a sort of Braveheart of American slavery. There’s certainly more morality to that approach than Quentin Tarantino’s leering pivot into base revenge fantasy in Django Unchained. Still, Parker’s path has its own hindering divots. The Birth of a Nation might begin as a sharp, heartfelt movie about a man, but it ends as a straining attempt at iconography. Given the relative lack of historical attention paid to the courageous insurgency of Nat Turner, it’s a noble creative choice, but it’s also, sadly, not a compelling one.

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Laughing Matters: Bruce McCulloch, “Daves I Know”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Having spent the past several days swinging wildly between obsessive tracking of political news and happy but tense viewings of postseason baseball, I need a soul and spirit cleanser. And this will do, nicely.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 136 – 134


136. Swans, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

For some fans of Swans, the betrayal of principles began with a cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” To the degree that the track — or tracks, really — represented a distinct turning point, they’re not entirely wrong. Michael Gira started Swans in the countercultural swirl of New York’s early-nineteen-eighties no wave scene, releasing a succession of abrasive, challenging albums and EPs. By the middle of that decade, pierced eyebrows were already raising as the hardest, most bruising edges were buffed off, a process accelerated by the inclusion of keyboardist and vocalist Jarboe on the roster. Then, in 1988, came the unexpected and mellow cover of Joy Division’s signature song. Though there was a level of abject difficulty to the very nature of the release: two different versions of the song, with either Gira or Jarboe on lead vocals, the cover of the EP the only signal to which was contained therein, leading countless music buyers to be perplexed when they got home and piped their new purchase through the stereo speakers. Skepticism-fueled positing the Swans were trying for a easy cash-in was bolstered by a groundswell of new interest in Joy Division, which itself drove the release of the compilation Substance that same year. Crass or not in motivation, the success of the cover did spur a major label to finally come courting Swans. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was the undisputed motivation for an ultimately ill-fated signing to MCA Records. (The band’s sole release under that banner, the 1989 album The Burning World, was said to be the poorest-selling album in the label’s history.) Gira later regretted the cover, fighting for years to prevent the version with his vocals from a rerelease. Jarboe viewed it more warmly. “I will always remember the time I sang it in a Swans concert in Manchester, England, to a large audience, and they all sang along with me. Amazing. Like a huge choir of believers,” she said. “Also, the lyrics hit home again and again. They describe my own experiences with my relationships, and when I sing that song, it is truth.”



135. Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

Dave Stewart was trying out his new drum machine. He had reason to be excited. Acquiring the device had taken quite a bit of effort, entailing a drive of hundreds of miles and a night bunked down on a stranger’s floor. It was a complicated device, and Stewart was flustered when unable to shut down the machine after setting it into aural motion with a bass drum pattern. The incessant beat roused his chief collaborator, Annie Lennox. She rushed in and started playing around with keyboard lines, soon moving on to writing down the cascade of lyrics that were occurring to her, including a thunder crack of a title: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” According to Stewart, he and Lennox knew they had something special, but others were slower to come around. “To us, it was a major breakthrough, but I remember later some famous publishers coming to hear it, and they didn’t get it at all,” Stewart wrote in his memoir. “They just kept saying, ‘I don’t understand this song. It doesn’t have a chorus.’ But the thing is, it just goes from beginning to end, and the whole song is a chorus. There is not one note that is not a hook.” Anyone who was initially dismissive of the track eventually saw their opinion proved foolish. Released as a single in 1983, it became a worldwide smash. That included a turn at the top of the Billboard chart, where it had the distinction of knocking the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” from that perch after a two-month run.



134. Joe Jackson, “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”

“Is She Really Going Out with Him?” the first single from Joe Jackson, began with the title. “I heard that phrase somewhere and I thought that could be a kind of funny song about gorgeous girls going out with monsters,” Jackson later explained. “It just started from there. It was just a funny song, or supposed to be funny. It was a great surprise to me when some people interpreted it as being angry.” The track was released in 1978 as the introduction to Jackson and his music. And it went absolutely nowhere on the charts. The following year, it was included on Look Sharp!, Jackson’s debut album. Helped by a blessed downpour of critical praise for that full-length release, Jackson started to made headway with the general public. When “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” was rereleased as a single, it had a much better fate, becoming Jackson’s first Top 40 hit in the United States. The slow build became a mad rush in such a convincing fashion that Jackson’s label urged him to deliver a sophomore album as quickly as possible, leading to the release of I’m the Man a mere seven months after its immediate predecessor.


As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: “And we begin, as always, with the latest in movie news….”


As was the case the last time I devoted a “From the Archive” entry to one of the newscast portions of our late radio show The Reel Thing, I need to credit a different writer. While I occasionally found a story for inclusion on the station’s AP wire, the show-opening news rundown was almost entirely the province of my esteemed, gifted colleague on the program. This group of stories led the episode that roughly corresponded with the current weekend, twenty-six years ago. He took the picture above, too.


The Birmingham, Alabama News says it won’t run ads for Henry & June, the first film to receive the Motion Picture Association of America’s new NC-17 rating. In an editorial, the paper said it would not review or accept ads for NC-17 movies, although it would consider exceptions on a case-by-case basis. This is similar to the policy that many newspapers had for films rated X. Universal Pictures says it will tag Birmingham-area radio ads and perhaps TV ads with information on the theater location and movie times.

Legal action is being taken by the director and co-producer of the hit film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles against the film’s distributor. Director Steve Barron and producer Simon Fields are suing Golden Harvest Films, Inc. for $5 million, saying that the company guaranteed them salary plus ten percent of the film’s net profits. The movie has grossed $140 million in the U.S. alone.

The life story of Roy Orbison is slated for big-screen treatment, and the film will include previously unreleased early recordings and songs recorded during the process of Orbison’s last album, Mystery Girl. Orbison’s widow, Barbara, and producer Steve Tisch are discussing the details with Warner Bros.

A couple more casting decisions announced for Steven Spielberg’s re-telling of the Peter Pan story, Hook. Bob Hoskins has been signed as a pirate to be named later, and the production now has a Tinker Bell; it’s Julia Roberts.

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to block showings of The Last Temptation of Christ, rejecting an appeal by three Pennsylvanians who say it is blasphemous. The court, without comment, let stand a ruling that the 1988 film is protected by free-speech rights. A state judge in Pittsburgh threw out the offending group’s suit in 1988.

On October 20th, 20th Century Fox will be throwing a massive party on its lot to celebrate both the 15th anniversary of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and its home video release in early November, and rumor has it that Fox may use this date as occasion to announce plans for a sequel.

Hollywood’s honorary mayor, Johnny Grant, recently returned from a visiting U.S. troops during a seven-day trip to Saudi Arabia. While there, he conducted an informal poll to learn which Tinseltown celebs our boys want to have visit them. Top vote getters? For male stars, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, and for the ladies, Miss Paula Abdul.

And the top five films this weekend at the U.S. box office:

5. Goodfellas, with $3.7 million

4. Fantasia, with $3.9 million

3. Ghost, with $4.2 million

2. Memphis Belle, with $5 million

1.  Marked for Death, with $7.4 million

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One for Friday: Daisy Chainsaw, “Love Your Money”


Sometimes I wish I’d kept absolutely everything from my college radio days. My time as a student broadcaster predated the point when hefty archives could be handily condensed down to a dinky drive the size of exhausted cigar stub, so any exhaustive collection would have been a bulging box of papers and audio tape. No matter the pack rat tendencies that lurk inside me, dragging my history from home to home (and eventually state to state) simply wasn’t feasible. I know that. Still, I’d love to load up different slices of bygone broadcast days.

I’m often surprised at just which fragments of memory can still the wistful nostalgia. To present a typical and absurd example, I’d really enjoy once again hearing what we called “the Mo’ Money montage.”

During the summer of 1992, I was earning most of my beer money (and, you know, funds for rent and food and stuff) by working at a local movie theater. I took advantage of that connection — and the fact that the theater was run by a highly pliable manager — to secure movie ticket giveaways for the radio station. Specifically, I orchestrated tickets for the opening weekend of the movies that were hoping to reap the rewards of eager summer ticket-buyers. While this occasionally meant highly coveted prizes such as Batman Returns passes, it was more likely that we were urging listeners to get excited about the likes of fated underperformers like Alien 3 and Boomerang. (We had the good sense to not even both with a Man Trouble giveaway.)

By mid-summer, we were getting a little bored with the standard, “It’s time for tickets; caller seven wins” approach to doling out the goods. So we came up with a slightly different approach when we had tickets for Mo’ Money, the comedy that hoped to capitalize on the buzzy success Damon Wayans was enjoying with the television series In Living Color. We edited together a bunch of songs and sound clips that included the word money and dropped it in the midst of sets of music. When listeners heard the “Mo’ Money montage,” that was their cue to call in to win.

As I recall, the sharp finale of those handful of highly-edited seconds was the one of the closing refrains from the Daisy Chainsaw single “Love Your Money.” This was the sort of song that arrived at the radio station and immediately exploded. Driving, catchy, sardonic, and over in less than three minutes, this was the sort of single we college kids could instinctively embrace. I still have a version of that track, and it has the same energizing effect every time it shuffles up. I just wish that montage occasionally shuffled up, too.

Listen or download –> Daisy Chainsaw, “Love Your Money”

(Disclaimer: To be honest, I didn’t check to see if this song is still in print in a physical format that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said store. If it is, please view this shared track as encouragement to engage in proper commerce to experience more of the band’s music. Or maybe go buy any record from that store. You’re worth it, and they surely deserve the business. Since I know the rules, even if I don’t fully agree with them, I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Now Playing: Queen of Katwe


The story moves in familiar ways. With few exceptions, most moviegoers will be able to tick off the main narrative beats of Queen of Katwe in advance. The young, beset heroine Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) finds some respite from the burdens of her hardscrabble life when she happens upon a group engaged in a competitive pursuit. Originally viewed by her new cohorts as a irritating neophyte, she quickly proves to be a prodigy, approaching the game she’s taken up with uncommon insight and sparkling inspiration. There will be highs. There will be lows. But surely there will be triumph in the end. Were there any doubts about this, they are surely quelled in the opening moments of the film, when synergistic corporate partners in manufacturing inspiration Disney and ESPN are each given their due as co-conspirers in the creation of the film.

Much as the film’s mechanics may sharpen the knives of criticism, Queen of Katwe mostly demonstrates that sometimes moves are familiar because, when used correctly, they prove to be winning. In the case of this film, the road to graceful deliverance from ill challenges is paves with chess pieces. Slipping away from her duties selling maize in the congested, dirty streets in the Ugandan slums, Phiona discovers a youth chess club taught by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an engineer by schooling and an empathetic mentor by temperament. Robert guides Phiona, but soon finds she’s lapping him. He works to bring the girl, along with many of her fellow students, into the comparative privilege of competitive cheese.

Based on reporting (first in ESPN The Magazine and later in a book) by Tim Crothers, William Wheeler’s screenplay is strikingly thorough, tracking Phiona’s journey expansively, like it’s raking in all the pieces at once. If that makes the film longer than seems immediately advisable — the running time crosses just past the two-hour mark — it also develops a fullness that imbues veracity on details that would otherwise feel like tropes. Director Mira Nair is equally committed to a riveting realness, particularly in the rendering of the class divide that weighs on the characters. In surveying the squalor of the impoverished community, the film operates with an attentiveness shorn of pity or sensation that recalls the documentary Born into Brothels.

Mutesi is smartly guileless in the lead role. The real richness in the film, though, comes from the actors with a little more experience. Lupita Nyong’o is quietly powerful and intricately crafty as Phiona’s mother. And Oyelowo shows what a skilled actor can do with a thin part, signaling the conflicts and healing sense of purpose that drives the chess coach. The couple of scenes that the performers have together are electric, hinting at a better alternate timeline within which they are the first choice onscreen pairing of every studio for every film that could benefit from a brilliantly intermingling charisma. (It’s almost startling to realize this is the first film Nyong’o has been in since earning her Academy Award that doesn’t bury her in a blob of CGI.) Until that epiphany arrives for the showbiz powers that be, Queen of Katwe is no consolation prize. On its own terms, it’s a champ.

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My Misspent Youth: Marvel Team-Up Annual #6 by Bill Mantlo and Ron Frenz

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.


Around 1983, anguished teen superheroes were all the rage. Marvel’s Uncanny X-MenUncanny X-Men was establishing a stranglehold on the top of the sales charts, and DC’s revamped take on the Teen Titans was a rare sensation to emerge from that publisher at that time. There was perhaps no clearer proof of the trend than the emergence of Cloak and Dagger.

Introduced in the pages of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, Cloak and Dagger were teen runaways who were captured by New York mob figures experimenting with a new strain of heroin. The pair were injected with the drug, but instead of suffering the same lethal results that beset others, they developed superpowers. Of course they did. From then on, their specialty involved fighting villains who preyed on similarly adrift youth. And the established hero they crossed paths with most often was everyone’s favorite wall-crawler.


And if Spider-Man was teaming up with someone, there was a decent chance it was taking place in Marvel Team-Up. If there was a little extra space needed to fit even more guests, well then an Annual was in order.

In the 1983 Annual, written by Cloak and Dagger co-creator Bill Mantlo and drawn by Ron Frenz, Spider-Man’s interaction with the young heroes who molded shadows and light to their will took on the feel of a full-to-bursting high school homeroom when the New Mutants showed up.


The latest pupils of Professor Charles Xavier had recently been launched into their own series, a clear attempt to exploit reader susceptibility to the exploits of mutants as well as the surging interest in teen heroes. Bringing them together with Cloak and Dagger into a sensational story made all the sense in the comics publishing world.

All of these criteria put the comic book squarely in my crosshairs. I was especially enamored of the story’s sense of high drama, spun out of the most florid worries ripped from the headlines.



Intensely sensitive to the perceived shortcoming of wasting my time with greasy kid stuff, I loved it when comics I read had a veneer of importance to them, especially if it was social commentary that could puff up my pinging political entitlement. Make no mistake, Mantlo was fully committed to infusing some seriousness into his storytelling around Cloak and Dagger, and those stories did stand out in an era when publishers were still pitching their comics to kids rather than the arrested development nostalgia addicts who make up the target market today. Still, I feel obligated to concede this material wasn’t nearly as erudite as I chose to believe.

Then again, a good yarn is a good yarn. And after all, I was roughly the same age as all these teen heroes bounding through the pages of Marvel Team-Up Annual. Why, it’s as if the comic was made for me.


Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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