Slavery is a topic in film that has been explored and dissected many times over. Just as you can’t make enough movies about World War II, the same goes for slavery. Unless you royally screw it up, this subject matter automatically gets you Oscar consideration. Due to the harshness and emotional baggage that comes with this topic, we can always be susceptible to overrating these pictures. Some deserve the praise. Some do not. 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2013. This was a movie I liked, but felt it had major flaws that made it a borderline worthy Best Picture winner. That’s just my opinion. Everybody relax.
Birth of a Nation opens this weekend, and it’s already being heralded as an Oscar Best Picture frontrunner. I’m very intrigued to see this film, but the previews have put up some warning flags. It’s pushing spectacle and blunt force trauma as opposed to character. 12 Years a Slave suffered the same problem. While the character of Patsey (in which Lupita Nyong’o won a much deserved Oscar) was well developed, the protagonist of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was not. He was a bland character. Director Steve McQueen chose to focus on the harshness of slavery as opposed to the actual man’s story. Based on the previews, Birth of a Nation may take a similar road.
While everyone knows 12 Years a Slave, a movie that explores this topic exceptionally well is the underrated classic from 1989 – Glory. It’s time this movie got its due, dammit! While you can argue it’s more of a war story, the theme of slavery is the soul of this film. Aside from an excellent cast, it’s the characters who drive it.
Glory is the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first volunteer all-black infantry in the Civil War, led by young Col. Robert Gould Shaw. One of mini-controversies of this film was the casting of Matthew Broderick in the lead role. I have to admit, had I been old enough to kvetch about movie casting, I also would have found this odd. This was only three years after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That’s a bit of a shift. Broderick definitely nails it though. There’s an early scene where you see how much war has affected him. He’s at a party, and the slightest noise or bump makes him jumpy. Shaw is just one of the great characters in this film.
For anyone who’s seen this movie, you know the real scene stealer is Denzel Washington, who won his first Academy Award for his role as Pvt. Trip. This is what separates Glory and 12 Years a Slave. In 12 Years a Slave, we immediately see Solomon get whipped without ever really getting to know the character. That’s director Steve McQueen rushing to the shock value. In Glory, we actually get to know Trip. From the first scene, you immediately know what this guy is all about. He’s a bitter man who wants to “fight everybody,” as Sgt. Maj. Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) accurately depicts him. They build on that first scene from when he enters the tent with attitude. Since we get to know the character, the whipping scene is that much more effective, and gives us the iconic Denzel tear.
You can’t just rely on shocking the audience. Glory may not have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but I strongly believe it will be remembered more favorably in film lore. The film is full of great characters like Rawlins and Forbes (Cary Elwes). One of the more underrated characters though is Thomas, played by Andre Braugher. This character goes through a traditional arc. He needs to toughen up. Whereas 12 Years a Slave is so focused on the situation, Glory presents actual characters, which makes us sympathize with that situation even more.
Glory is also more subtle. While the famous whipping and hanging scenes from 12 Years a Slave are powerful, it’s almost too much shock to the point where it’s cartoonish. Glory does it right. While these men are free from slavery, it’s still heavily focused on oppression. It’s the little elements that are effective. The soldiers not being able to get proper footwear. The cut in pay. They can’t even get real uniforms as enlisted men. No one wants to give them a real mission. These aren’t shoved in your face, but we get it. 12 Years a Slave wants to bash us over the head until we’re sore.
Aside from its slavery themes, Glory is just a damn good war movie. One of the privates proves to be a crack shot with a gun, but Shaw brutally teaches him it means nothing if he can’t reload fast enough. That’s a brilliant sequence, and it pays off. As mentioned before, the movie is littered with great actors. Morgan Freeman has a gut-wrenching monologue where he puts Denzel in his place. Denzel’s final speech the night before they go into battle is acting at its finest. The score by James Horner is epic as hell. The build-up to the climax and final battle itself is also spectacular. Oh yeah, and Tom Smykowski from Office Space pops up (Richard Riehle).
If you haven’t seen Glory, please do yourself a favor and check it out. You will not be disappointed. With all the current events going on this past year, Birth of a Nation certainly comes out in an interesting time. One ad I saw even melded the trailer together with real life events, which can be viewed as both a shameless, but effective marketing ploy. As I do with all movies, I’ll be judging Birth of a Nation as a film. I’m hoping this movie takes a page out of the Glory handbook. I’m not interested in watching a film that yells and screams for two and a half hours. No matter what the subject matter is, I want to be invested in characters so I can empathize more with that subject matter.
Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.