Written and directed by and starring Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation is based on the true story of Nat Turner, a slave and literate preacher who led a slave rebellion in the antebellum south in 1831.
As a black woman living in America, watching movies about the mistreatment of any group of people is very personal to me. Regardless of which event of genocide or oppression or injustice is being portrayed on film, I am willing to admit that I can be what some might consider “overly sensitive” to these dark periods of inhumanity, if it is possible to be “too” sensitive to kidnapping, rape, torture, terror, murder and/or oppression of a people. But these are important films to watch for me, because I always learn something new from them. I have real empathy not only for the characters in the movie, but the people being portrayed who actually lived through these events. That being said, it is sometimes difficult to separate the personal feelings about the events from the actual film. But I am going to try. And add to that the controversy over Mr. Parker’s rape case and – let’s just say there was a lot to dissect and consider here.
Visually, The Birth of a Nation is a stunning film, at times. Much of the cinematography is beautiful in a film that is about an ugly, ugly period in American history. The acting was solid all the way around. The story is based on history with some poetic license, and is succinctly told in two hours through the eyes of someone who obviously views Nat Turner as a hero.
In case you do not know, there are two schools of thought regarding Turner’s historical legacy. On one hand, he is thought to have been a hero; a man who stood up for himself, his fellow man and what was right. On the other hand he and his rebellion were responsible for hundreds of retaliatory deaths and new laws being passed which prohibited the education of slaves and free black people throughout several southern states. It is thought by some that the ends did not justify the means. It is thought by some that this bloody rebellion, in which men women and children were slaughtered, was not justified because murder is wrong under any circumstances; an eye for an eye leaves us both blind-type thinking. So, I appreciate that Parker obviously chose a side in the telling of the story rather than being objective, told the story that he wanted to tell, and committed to his point of view and made Nat Turner heroic.
What I did not like about The Birth of a Nation is that in that same commitment to make Nat Turner heroic, there seemed to be some waffling as the film seemed to attempt to justify Turner’s actions over and over again by showing him as a man who was brought to his breaking point through a series of community and personal outrages. What other justification is needed to rebel against being treated as less than human, having your body and the bodies of your grandparents, parents, spouse, siblings, children, etc. available for back breaking free labor, sex, entertainment, or anything else “your master” or any other white person wanted, whenever he or she wanted, and, if you protested in even the slightest way, you face possible torture or death? And this is not only what you were born into, but this is the only foreseeable future for your children and their children and their children… I, for one, would like to say that in this woman’s opinion, Turner’s actions needed no further justification. I understand a story needs to be made out of these events somehow and there has to be a focus on something, but I did not feel it was necessary to continue to pile up reasons for why the rebellion took place.
I did like that what led Turner to rebellion was his faith and his new-found interpretation of the Bible. If you’ve ever read The Good Book, you already know it is a book that you can never finish reading because if you read it over again you will find something new or see something differently than you did the last time you read it. A light bulb may come on for you the fourth time you read it, as you find something you missed the other three times. So, after reading the Bible for pretty much all of his life, when his circumstances changed – after seeing that other slaves on other plantations did not live as well as he did, after discovering his master wasn’t the great guy he thought he was, after going through some hardships in life, after growing up some AND after getting his hands on some books of the Bible the white folks kept from him that gave a more complete picture of its message (as interpreted by Nat) – so did his interpretation of the words written in the Bible. Just as the slave owners use the words in the Bible to justify slavery, Turner uses those same words to support the uprising. Here Parker did a fantastic job at showing us the revelation that Turner was having reading the Bible and finding new meaning in it that fit his circumstances and his purpose; words he could truly relate to and believed in. Then there was this shift in the entire movie – it was as if the slaves were developing their own secret code, spoken in plain English, that for some reason (It is a bit far fetched, I know, but I’ll let this one slide) the slave owners did not interpret as threatening, as they stood right there listening to Nat preach about rising up against the enemy.
Speaking of far fetched, one scene just defied logic to me. Can’t really tell you much about it but I will say this. Picture it… If I have a gun and you do not have a gun, and I could shoot you instead of fighting you hand-to-hand and get away with it, you would be shot. That’s all.
I actually enjoyed this movie a lot more than I thought I did now that I am writing about it. I can see why the movie was so talked about, why Fox Searchlight paid Parker $17 million for it – a record amount paid for a film at first sight at its premier at the Sundance Film Festival. The evolution of this man’s faith, coming into his purpose, becoming a leader, the evolution of the scripture for him, the awakening of the slaves, the bloody revolution and its aftermath all make this a movie worth watching. The movie is very dynamic and the story is cathartic.
The Birth of a Nation earned 8 out of 10 bloops. It is a great movie worth seeing. It is visually beautiful at times. It is well written in the way the plot is constantly moving forward in a good way, and many of the characters go through many changes. It artistically interprets an important event in American history that I certainly learned nothing about in the revisionist history I was taught in the public schools I attended growing up (I did however, thankfully learn about Nat Turner and much more from my mom who majored in black history in college). The Birth of a Nation also provides plenty of issues and talking points for parents and older children to discuss and it may inspire someone to pick up a book (if anybody does that anymore) or Google Nat Turner and/or some other abolitionists, or something else about American history that they didn’t know before watching this film.