The Birth of a Nation

In his debut feature as a director, Nate Parker attempts to do no less than reclaim American history in the name of the slaves who had their own lives and their own stories ripped away from them. This re-appropriation starts with the title — The Birth of a Nation is stolen from D.W. Griffith’s racist epic — and continues with an opening epigraph. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” reads the quote from Thomas Jefferson, famously a slave owner, “that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Parker himself stars as Nat Turner, a Virginia slave who in 1831 led the deadliest slave rebellion in American history. By the end, about 60 whites had been killed — and a hundred or more blacks had been slaughtered in retaliation. The Birth of a Nation is the sorrowful, righteously angry chronicle of how Nat, a kind, charismatic, and devout preacher, came to spark a bloody uprising.

Comparisons to 12 Years a Slave will be inevitable, but in truth Birth of a Nation complements, rather than competes with, the other recent slave drama. 12 Years a Slave was the horrifying true tale of a free man forced into slavery. Birth of a Nation is the equally horrifying, equally true tale of a man who’s never enjoyed a single day of freedom in his life. To Nat, bondage isn’t a shocking turn of events; it’s simply his life as it always was and always will be. In that sense, it’s actually a bit like Spotlight, another recent story of insiders gradually coming to realize their own complacency in the face of unspeakable horrors, and deciding to do something about it.

Cinema does not exist in a vacuum, any more than any other medium does, and there’s something undeniably powerful about seeing this story, from this perspective, at this point in time. When one slave laments, “They killed people everywhere for no reason at all but being black,” it’s impossible not to hear echoes of all those recent police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement. When Nat is beaten or insulted or bossed around by white overseers and masters, there’s an extra-textual fuck-you in the knowledge that in real life, Parker himself was the one calling the shots on set.

Birth of a Nation

Birth of a Nation goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Nat Turner did not have it “that bad,” as far as slave lives go. His mistress (Penelope Ann Miller) approves of his learning to read, and goes out her way to teach him the Bible. His owner Samuel (Armie Hammer) leaps to his defense when other white men threaten Nat. We see slaves dressed in rags, slaves starving to death, slaves getting their teeth knocked out one by one. Nat suffers none of those horrors. He lives with his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and grandmother (Esther Scott), has a beautiful wife (Aja Naomi King) and daughter, and enjoys a strong reputation among whites and blacks alike as a preacher. Compared to many of his brethren, his life is downright cushy.

But it’s not enough, because of course it isn’t. Nat’s owner may treat him with relative gentleness, but their every interaction is colored by their uneven power dynamic. When Samuel allows Nat to visit his wife on a neighboring plantation during an emergency, he can’t resist pointing out to Nat the next day that another, less kind master wouldn’t have let him go. Samuel and the other whites approve of Nat’s preaching so long as he uses the Scripture to encourage obedience and submissiveness — so long, in other words, as he’s complicit in their crimes. And there are hard limits to Samuel’s compassion for his slaves, as we discover in one devastating scene featuring a nearly unrecognizable Gabrielle Union.

Parker is excellent as the charismatic and complicated Nat Turner. Circumstances prevent Nat from freely expressing his emotions, but Parker conveys volumes with his stillness or with the mere flicker of his eye. Parker’s performance as a director is a bit less even, though it’s still impressive for a first-timer. He doesn’t lack for boldness and ambition, and if his more offbeat choices don’t always pay off (a vision of heaven looks particularly cheesy) he still deserves points for creativity. While the film errs on the side of bluntness, there’s no denying it packs a powerful punch. The Birth of a Nation isn’t an easy story to watch, but it’s one that absolutely demands to be told.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10

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