Editor’s Note: The Birth of a Nation is now playing in wide theatrical release.
The United States was founded on a lie. All men were not created equal, not under the Declaration of Independence, not under the Articles of Confederation, and not under the U.S. Constitution. Women were excluded. Native-Americans were excluded. African-Americans were excluded (except when they counted for 3/5ths of a person for census purposes). It took a Civil War, multiple amendments to the Constitution, and the Civil Rights Act a century later to redress, in part if not in whole, the lie present at our nation’s founding. That lie hangs unspoken over writer-director-actor Nate Parker’s assuredly provocative, inflammatory feature-length debut, The Birth of a Nation, a metaphor-rich, fictionalized biography of slave-preacher turned rebel leader Nat Turner’s brief life (he died at 31), a life punctuated by the 48-hour rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia that left 60 slave-holders and more than 200 black men, women, and children dead.
Parker literalizes Turner’s visions, specifically a vision that connects Turner not just to Judeo-Christian mythology, but to non-Western, African religions.
A decade-long labor of love for Parker, The Birth of a Nation repurposes D.W. Griffith’s racist “classic” – “classic” less for its rancid, odious white supremacist politics and more for its innovative, expansive use of modern filmmaking techniques – into a subversive take on a key, symbolic moment in the nation’s, pre-Civil War history, a short-lived, violent rebellion that foreshadowed the far more violent upheaval of the Civil War thirty years. Both used and some might argue, abused Christianity, first to justify slavery through copious Old Testament references and later to justify the opposite (the abolitionists steeped their anti-slavery stance on close readings of the Bible). In a key line, another slave, Isaiah (Roger Guenveur Smith), the epitome of the “House Negro,” argues for the New Testament interpretation of God as love. Consumed with a righteous fury and zealous rage of a prophet, Nat Turner (Parker) immediately rejects Isaiah’s interpretation: His God is the God of Wrath, of Vengeance. Turner subsequently turns on his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and leads a bloody, brutal assault on the institution of slavery.
Turner’s prophetic visions also play a key role in his development. Parker literalizes Turner’s visions, specifically a vision that connects Turner not just to Judeo-Christian mythology, but to non-Western, African religions. In both, he’s seen – as he sees himself – as special, as chosen, as a leader who will lead his people out of bondage like a 19th-century Moses, albeit through violent revolt. As a child, Turner shows a preternatural gift for reading and oratory, a gift that Samuel’s mother, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), nurtures until her husband passes away. Turner leaves the comfortable confines of the Turner home for the backbreaking work of picking cotton, but that does little to diminish his fervor for the Bible or for his own role as a prophet and leader. Samuel eventually recognizes that he can profit from Nat’s oratorical gifts, essentially lending out Nat to preach forbearance and salvation (in another life) to slaves on nearby plantations. As Nat becomes increasingly uneasy with Samuel’s use of his gifts, he also witnesses the humiliations, mistreatment, and brutality inherent in the institution of slavery. (Until then, he’s been more or less immune, the result of the Turners’ relatively benign treatment of their slaves).
Intentionally or not, Parker raises a contemporary issue, of extremists and zealots who claim Divine Providence for their actions.
Witnessing brutality begins to turn Turner against slavery, but it’s not until he decides to baptize a white man – a line Turner crosses willfully crosses knowing full well the consequences – and the aftermath (he’s tied to a post and whipped), an experience that brings him closer to seeing himself as a messiah-like figure (transfiguration through suffering) that leads Turner to make the fateful decision to rebel. He gathers a handful of followers, exhorting them with Biblical imagery (e.g., David, Goliath, etc.), and claiming a small-scale, localized uprising will lead to a full-blown slave rebellion (i.e., Spartacus). He’s wrong, of course. The rebellion doesn’t extend past a few miles, ending when Turner and his men attempt to take a local armory in the symbolically named Jerusalem. Parker turns Turner into myth and allegory, into a Christ-like figure. The real Turner didn’t turn himself in; he was captured after several months, but Parker’s Turner allows himself to be captured. He’s beaten, spit upon, and verbally abused before he’s martyred to the anti-slavery cause. There’s even more than a hint of betrayal from one of his followers, a young boy who becomes ill after becoming a witness to violence.
For all the Biblical imagery, however, for all the talk of Turner being called by a Higher Power to revolt – the real Turner claimed spiritual visions – there’s a corollary too: Religion can be as a means for peace, however unjust the socio-economic system may be, and for violence. Everything depends on interpretation of ambiguous, often contradictory Biblical text. Intentionally or not, Parker raises a contemporary issue, of extremists and zealots who claim Divine Providence for their actions. That Turner, for all of his eloquence, for all of his rhetoric and charisma, was wrong, that God, however defined, didn’t call him to violence or revolt, that the visions that guided him were ultimately just as wrong, may or may have been lost on Parker (Parker takes The Birth of a Nation into almost pure hagiography), but not on moviegoers with a more critical bent. Turner’s ultimate value lies not in unambiguous heroism, an anti-slavery rebel and martyr, but as the embodiment of the paradoxes, contradictions, and complexities inherent in American history.
Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation is almost pure hagiography of the life of Nat Turner, but that doesn't take away from the film's value as an embodiment of the paradoxes, contradictions, and complexities inherent in American history.