A New 'The Birth Of A Nation' Tells Nat Turner's Story
Nate Parker's film looks to 1831 slave rebellion
“The Birth of a Nation” opening this weekend at Landmark Theatres is not a remake of the 1915 D.W. Griffith silent film. Instead, it’s a response and challenge to it.
D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” was a brilliant piece of innovative filmmaking that broke new ground back in 1915. Unfortunately, its story was blatantly racist. So for contemporary African American filmmaker Nate Parker to use that title for his new historical narrative about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion is a way of firing off a political message before a single image even hits the screen.
In the press notes, Parker said:
“For me, calling the film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was about reclaiming those words, about righting a wrong — and turning the title into something that can inspire. It leaves us with a question we must ask if we are to heal as a nation: when injustice knocks at our own front door, are we going to counter it with everything we have?”
To ask that question of audiences, Parker turned to the story of Nat Turner, an important, enigmatic, and controversial figure in American history.
Who was Nat Turner?
Turner was born on Oct. 2, 1800 in Southampton County, Va. Unlike the vast majority of slaves, Turner could read and write, and he eventually became a preacher while a slave. Spurred on by both prophetic visions and a growing awareness of the social injustices around him, he led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County on August 21, 1831 that resulted in the deaths of at least 55 white slave owners and their families, including women and children. They went from plantation to plantation as they moved toward the religiously named county of Jerusalem.
White militia soon fought back and most of the rebels were quickly captured. Turner, however, eluded authorizes for more then a month before being arrested on Oct. 30. He was swiftly tried and executed. Virginia reacted to the rebellion with harsher laws controlling blacks but some credit the rebellion with hastening the country on its course to civil war and an end to slavery.
Parker’s Nat Turner
Turner (played by Nate Parker in the film) is depicted as someone driven by a sense of purpose from a young age. That drive is channeled by the white slave owner’s wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). She takes the young Turner under her wing and gives him a Bible to read. Turner becomes a preacher but he’s forced by his white slave owner Benjamin (Armie Hammer) to preach at nearby plantations as a means of “calming” the other slaves and controlling them. Turner goes from one plantation to the next meeting slave owners who run the gamut of cruelty, and seeing black men, women, and children subjected to varying degrees of abuse. As he preaches he starts to hear God’s words differently. Sometimes the words about obedience stick in his throat, as when he reads from the Bible: “Slaves submit yourselves to your masters with all respect not only to those who are good and considerate but also to those who are harsh.”
But other times he finds double meanings in verses about oppression and injustice and sees the white slave owners as “false prophets” the Bible rails against. The film depicts him as someone whose experiences turn him into a man driven by faith and a confidence that God is on the side of the oppressed. He takes the tool the whites have given him — the Bible — and uses it to justify and lead a rebellion that terrified and unsettled the white community.
Blood will have blood
Shakespeare famously said “blood will have blood” and “we but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor.” White plantation owners not only took away basic human rights and freedoms from their enslaved blacks but they also subjected them to a level of violence that was destined to provoke a violent response. Parker’s film suggests that sometimes violence is the only solution to a violent situation. That is a scary thing but it is also something we need to pay heed because there are times when only extreme actions will draw attention to even more extreme problems.
The film offers an interesting counterpoint to Quentin Tarantino’s recent “Django Unchained,” which caused its own controversy. Django was a genre film and revenge story about a black slave rising up and killing his enemies to gain personal freedom. “The Birth of a Nation” is not specifically a revenge tale (although revenge does come into play) but rather an often spiritual story of one man’s social awakening to the injustices around him and his decision to lead a rebellion against it. The character of Django never risks anything for others. Nat Turner, on the other hand, chooses to give up the meager privileges he has as a black preacher in order to risk his own life to fight for a better future for the next generation. But both films give us rare images of slaves choosing to fight back.
Parker tells Turner’s story with considerable artistry. Although the film is filled with a lot of ideas, it is a story told very cinematically and often more through images than words. Parker has an eye for visual poetry and a shot of a whips sliding through the grass like a snake before it tears into flesh is just one of the images that gets burned into your memory. Similarly, a shot of an ear of sweet corn bleeding comes to vividly symbolize the violence Turner’s wife is subjected to. Both images prove far more effective and emotionally charged than any words could convey.
Turner’s story and Parker’s choice of how to tell it also means that “The Birth of a Nation” is a film about slavery in which the black characters are driving the story and are the agents of change. There is no white character of equal weight (like Christoph Waltz who is the one to actually exact the central revenge in “Django Unchained”) or a white savior who helps rescue or free the slave (like Brad Pitt in “12 Years a Slave”). Parker presents the point of view of someone who takes a revolutionary stand and who does so through violence. That is not a perspective that white mainstream America is often comfortable with, they are more comfortable if that rebellion is told through a film like "Spartacus" or “Braveheart” (with white characters in countries far away in time and location) or “Che” (again a foreign country).
Parker also instills his film with a burning sense of activism. He wants to open our eyes to a chapter in American history that is too rarely told but which is as the title suggests as much about the birth of our country as anything else we get in school textbooks. Parker grew up in near where the Turner insurrection occurred, and he noted in the press materials that he did not hear the name Nat Turner in school:
“I heard it in whispers and from family members. As if they were conjuring the very spirit of rebellion. But it wasn’t until I was in college, taking African-American Studies that I really learned about him. When I did, I thought ‘how is it possible that I didn’t know about this?’ Yet it happened right in my back yard.”
Parker’s film — which in some ways is a very religious or at least spiritual film — chronicles the social awakening of one man and his decision to lead a rebellion to incite change. Parker wants his film to be about an important moment in America’s historical past but to take that moment and consider what it means looking to the future:
“I first want people once they see (the film) to recognize the systems that are in place that are really affecting the citizens of the United States. In this particular film the Ante-Bellum South, what they were faced with, how it affected them, how their cognitive dissonance shielded them from their humanity and then to ask themselves do we see remnants of that today are there parallels from this film that we can pull into our contemporary times and if so if we can identify those and ask ourselves what is our responsibility?”
Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” (rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity) wants to open our eyes to a chapter in American history that’s too rarely told but which — as the title suggests — defines our country as much as anything else we’ve been taught. October marks the anniversary of both Turner’s birth and his arrest so it’s more than appropriate for “The Birth of a Nation” to open now and raise questions about how Turner should be remembered.