The Birth of a Nation, Fox Searchlight Photos, 120 minutes, 2016
Slavery seems to be making a comeback, in Hollywood at least. On the big screen and on television, a real American horror story is now being portrayed from the viewpoint of those it affected most, African Americans. But the avalanche of prerelease publicity that accompanied The Birth of a Nation—the most recent entrant in this category—makes it hard to separate the film from the environment into which it was released. Perhaps that is as it should be. The issues being cinematically explored, such as personal freedom, racial stereotypes, equality before the law and sovereignty over one’s body, are still being challenged today.
It is also difficult to evaluate the cinematic merits, or lack thereof, of Nate Parker’s film without getting caught up in the personal firestorm engulfing the director. Nevertheless, Parker, a first-time director and novice actor, has brought forth an important—though not flawless—motion picture, releasing it into a world of combustible politics and divisive cultural paradigms much like those depicted in the movie.
The events portrayed took place more than 180 years ago in Southampton County, Va. The facts surrounding Nat Turner and the 48-hour revolt he led are few, and all of the surviving documents and newspaper accounts were written by unnerved whites. A contemporary account also was written about the event, The Confessions of Nat Turner, penned by Thomas Ruffin Gray, who interviewed Turner while he was in jail awaiting his inevitable death. What we know for sure is that in a rampage of personal revenge and messianic racial liberation that began on August 21, 1831, Turner and a small band of free and enslaved blacks cut a bloody swath through area plantations, collecting arms and horses and killing some 60 men, women and children as they went.
Retribution by whites was swift and even more brutal. More than 200 blacks were killed by frenzied mobs and militia units before Turner, who eluded his pursuers until October, was captured and brought to “trial.” Most of the murdered blacks had nothing to do with the uprising.
Although not depicted in the film, history records that 45 slaves, including Turner, were tried for insurrection and other crimes. Of the 30 convicted, 18—including Turner—were hanged and 12 were sold out of state. Fifteen of the accused blacks were acquitted.
This dearth of data give co-screenwriters Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin wide latitude in how to depict Turner’s early life and events leading up to the revolt. These stories take up most of the film. Parker chooses a conventional biopic approach focusing almost exclusively on Turner. The film begins with scenes of an African baby supposedly marked for greatness. In America, he becomes a favored house slave taught to read by his mistress. To make extra money for his master, Turner becomes an itinerant preacher advocating slave submission. In his final iteration, Turner becomes a visionary revolutionary and insurrection leader.
In his journey from naiveté to wisdom, Turner experiences a series of epiphanies that infuse him with attributes of Jesus, Moses, John Brown and Malcolm X. Parker uses religious symbolism throughout the film as a motivator for Turner and as a prop to propel the plot. As an actor, Parker’s expressive eyes reveal each step of Turner’s transformation.
For any viewer still ascribing to the “moonlight and magnolias” school of the antebellum South, Parker dispels these fairy tales in two visually graphic episodes. One takes place during one of Turner’s ministerial trips with his unusually kind owner who was a former childhood playmate, played rather stiffly by Armie Hammer. Turner and his master arrive at a hardscrabble plantation where the slaves are malnourished and brutally treated. Reluctantly Turner fulfills his mission, but he now knows that his sheltered existence is a myth.
Later, his wife is savagely raped and beaten by a slave catcher, played with a sinister sincerity by Jackie Earle Haley, and his posse. The wife of his best friend is ordered by Turner’s now-malevolent master to sleep with an overnight guest in the hopes of cementing a business arrangement. Powerless to protect his family or stop the degradation of a friend by asserting his manhood, Turner, like John Brown, comes to realize that only blood will purge the sin of slavery from the land, a land in which he is trapped by the color of his skin.
Now fully radicalized, Turner gathers a small band of followers to spearhead what he promises will be revolutionary slave uprising. Like Moses, Turner has been marked from birth to lead his people to freedom and he must fulfill his destiny. But, like Jesus, he is betrayed by someone he trusted. This allows the forces of the old order to be ready and waiting when Turner’s loyalists arrive in the town of Jerusalem (now called Courtland) to seize the armory there. In a bit of unintentional foreshadowing, John Brown’s insurrection also ended in an armory in Harpers Ferry, Va., 28 years later.
Believing it is better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knee’s, Turner leads his followers on a courageous, but obviously suicidal, charge into the maw of what Malcolm X would call white devils who have defined every aspect of his existence. Parker uses the carnage in the armory yard to represent all of the slaves who died in service of the brutal, dehumanizing, system that Turner tried to end.
Unfortunately, the important role women played in servile society is largely ignored by Parker. As Turner’s wife, Cherry, Aja Naomi King tries to give her role some gravitas, but Parker uses her mainly to propel Turner’s evolution. Penelope Ann Miller is Elizabeth Turner, the dowager mistress of the plantation. She sensed that Nat is special and taught him to read. But when he needed her most, she could only look bewildered and remained mute when her son ordered his overseer to give Turner a lengthy lashing for perceived insubordination. Rather than crassly exploit the gruesome dismemberment and beheading of Turner after he was hung, Parker confines this information to words written in white on an otherwise blank black screen.
Parker’s major achievement in The Birth of a Nation may be that he got it made at all and then had it purchased by a major studio for distribution. Perhaps in the current social and political environment, the film will generate a conversation about the many hurtful truths that litter our historical past.
And in a twist of irony that only history can provide, Nat Turner’s skull has recently been returned to his living descendants by Richard Gordon Hatcher, former mayor of Gary, Ind. He acquired the skull about 10 years ago after it had passed through several private hands over the years. The skull is now with the Smithsonian Institution for DNA testing. If the results are positive, it will be buried next to his descendants in Virginia and the unquiet soul of Nat Turner may finally be at rest.
This review was originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. Subscribe here.