Rated R. Running time: 2 hours.
Our content ratings: Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference,
not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.
1 Peter 2:18
Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’”
1 Samuel 15:3
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…
Director/star/co-writer Nate Parker begins his story of the Nat Turner Rebellion with the famous words of Thomas Jefferson, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Penned in 1781 when he was governor of Virginia, these words proved to be as prophetic for America as the warnings of Isaiah and Jeremiah were for Jerusalem. They were written by a slave holder with a bad conscience, just as Mr. Turner ‘s film was created to appeal our consciences today. The film demonstrates in graphic detail that just as love begets love, hatred and violence beget hatred and violence.
The prologue to the film is a dream set in a wood where a holy man, examining the vertical three marks on young Nat’s (Tony Espinosa) chest, tells the mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis) that this boy is a leader, a prophet. After the opening credits the time jumps to a night in 1809 when Nat’s father Isaac (Dwight Henry) is getting ready to run away. He had fought with three whites in the woods, killed one, and succeeded in slipping away. Now he must flee as far from the plantation as possible. He tells his son that he is a child of God and to take care of his mother.
This segment’s other childhood scenes find the plantation mistress Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) summoning her son Samuel, who is playing with Nat, to supper. Alone, the slave boy walks up onto the porch where he spies a book, opened over the back of a chair. The taking of that book marks the turning point of the boy’s life. A little later Elizabeth calls Nat into the family library where she reveals that she knows Nat now has the rudiments of literacy. Pleased, she announces that she will teach him further. When he reaches out for one of the many books lining the shelves, she stops him, saying, “Those books are for white people, your kind can’t understand them.” She insists that his book will be The Bible, because from it he will learn how to live. She means as an obedient slave, of course. Elizabeth might have a trace of kindness in her, but she is still infected by the racism of her time.
Much later, the grown-up Nat (now played by Nate Parker) preaches to his fellow-slaves in a corner of the barn adorned with a crude cross. The old master Benjamin Turner has died, and his son, Nat’s former playmate Samuel (played by Griffin Freeman as a boy and Armie Hammer as an adult), now heads the household. He stands at the back of the gathering to make sure that Nat is preaching a gospel of subservience. The young man starts out awkwardly, but with practice puts more feeling into his message. There are no passages from Exodus about the freedom of the slaves, nor from any of the prophets about God hating injustice. Nat’s texts are mainly from the New Testaments demanding that slaves obey their masters. During the week, he picks cotton alongside of the other slaves.
One day while driving his master in a wagon they come upon a slave auction where Nat convinces the reluctant Samuel to buy a female slave he fancies. At the plantation Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is rebellious at first, and anything but grateful to Nat, but this will change. The two fall in love and marry, but both know that they could be parted at any time at the whims of their master. The film shows the daily indignations they suffer, these symbolized by Nat’s recurring memory of a white girl blithely skipping along with a black boy in tow, her rope tied around the slave’s neck. One day in town Nat retrieves a doll dropped in the street by a white child. When he speaks to the mother while giving back the doll, her husband angrily hits the slave with a rod for daring to speak directly to a white woman rather than her husband. Even worse is what happens during a party Samuel is hosting to impress his friends. A lustful guest seeks the service of a black female, so Samuel summons the wife of one of Nat’s friends. All that any of the slaves can do is stand by, and then when the abused woman is brought out the next morning, attempt to comfort her.
Samuel finds himself in financial straits during a time when the price of cotton drops to a new low, so he is open to a suggestion from his greedy minister, the bewhiskered Rev. Walthall (Mark Boone Jr.). Rumors of slave unrest and of revolts are abroad, so the good Reverend tells him that other plantation owners would pay well for Nat’s preaching of a gospel of meek obedience and service. Samuel takes Nat on a tour, during which Nat again preaches from the New Testament epistles in which slaves (also translated as servants) are ordered to obey their masters. He starts out woodenly, but gains in fervor with each new assignment. There is a montage of shots in which coins flow from the hands of a plantation master into that of Samuel’s. (This reminded me of the sell-out of TV prosperity preachers serving up their “God wants you rich” gospel! There have always been ways of using religion for profit.)
However, an unintended consequence of the tour is that Nat is bothered by what he sees on plantations whose masters are far more cruel and brutal than Samuel. In one instance, he and his master are made to watch how a slave owner deals with two slaves that have protested their treatment by going on a hunger strike. The slaves are chained inside a shed, their mouths covered. Uncovering the mouth of one slave, the overseer uses a hammer and chisel to smash out the victim’s teeth, and then forces food into the bloodied mouth, stifling the wretch’s screams. Thus, the tour intended for his master’s profit transforms Nat, his respect for whites turned into contempt. His change is reflected in his preaching in which he turns for his texts from the obedience-enjoining epistles to the Psalms, “Sing to the Lord a new song…”
Nat is further radicalized when he is publicly whipped for talking back to Samuel and the white minister following a baptism. This was a remarkable case of Nat crossing the line, because a white man had asked Nat to baptize him. The congregation, almost all black, looks on as Nat performs the sacrament in the river. Such an unheard-of act scandalizes the white community, thus bringing on the confrontation between Samuel, Rev. Walthall, and Nat. Whatever respect the slave had held for his master is gone after the flogging. While tending to his bloodied back his grandmother Bridget (Esther Scott) relates stories of the many similar acts of injustice she has witnessed during her long life. His radicalization is completed when his beloved Cherry is ravished and injured by the brutal overseer Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) and his two companions.
Late at night Nat presides over a meeting in the woods with a half dozen slaves whom he trusts. The “new song” that he now preaches is one of violent revolt, of vengeance for all the wrongs committed. He reads from the 1 Samuel passage in which the prophet Samuel orders King Saul to go and kill their enemies the Amalekites, sparing none of them, not even the women and the children. When one man demurs, saying that that God is a God of love, Nat replies, “God of wrath.” There follows in quick succession scenes of the slaves arming themselves, mostly with farm tools and just a few old muskets, and setting forth into the night to kill their masters, starting with Samuel, dispatched by Nat with a hatchet.
The slaves move from plantation to plantation wreaking their vengeance, killing all whites they come upon, men, women, and children. However, before their band can grow large enough to become a real threat they are betrayed by a black boy, and the aroused whites, backed by militia, quickly overcome the rebels. The slaves killed 60 whites, but hundreds of them are killed in return by the angry whites—many who had no knowledge of or connection to the rebellion. There is a sequence of grim shots of slaves hanging from trees, one with so many dangling bodies that it called to mind the old song about lynching made popular almost 80 years ago by Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit:” “Southern trees bear a strange fruit,/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,/Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,/
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
The film ends as optimistically as it can be showing a black youth in the crowd looking up at the about to be hanged Nat Turner. The boy’s face is morphed into that of a grown-up man, and the camera pulls back to reveal more of his body, showing the blue uniform he is wearing. Clearly, Nat’s influence lives on in the life of the young man inspired by his example.
One interesting aspect of the film is the way in which it reveals how the Bible has been used, or we should say, misused, by whites for social control, a technique scorned by Karl Marx in this quotation, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” I recall reading several decades ago black poet/preacher Howard Thurman’s beautiful book Deep River in which he asks his grandmother why when he read the Bible to her she would never permit him to read from the letters of the apostle Paul, except for the love chapter from 1 Corinthians. She replied that when she was a slave the white minister on the plantation always read the portions of Paul’s letters commanding, “Slaves, obey your master.” She vowed that if she were ever freed, she would never read from that portion of the Scriptures. Director/writer Parker renders a real service in reminding us how religion and its holy books can be used for evil rather than good purposes. Selected passages from the Bible have been used similarly to keep in subjection women and gays, with those wielding it as a club for exclusion while ignoring passages that teach the opposite.
Birth of a Nation is a visual parable that challenges us and enlarges our understanding of both our past and our present. There is irony in the filmmakers’ choice of a title, Parker knowing that virtually all serious film goers are aware that the first film bearing this name was D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic based on The Clansman, a novel about the Civil War that demonized black males and glorified the KKK as defenders of society. The first film falsified history, reflecting the racist values then dominant in America. Griffiths’ story was told from the standpoint of those at the top of society; Mr. Parker’s is told from the viewpoint of those at the bottom. (I should mention here the new documentary named 13th in which Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is shown as a major booster of racism. It should be seen—on NetFlix—as a companion film to Nate Parker’s. Directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma), it is the story of how 19th century slavery has morphed into 20th century Jim Crow and then into today’s mass incarceration system weighted against blacks. See my review soon to be posted on this site.)
Nate Parker’s film is not, of course, history, given we know so few facts about the leader of the rebellion. Author William Styron states this in the essay “Nat Turner Revisited” included up front in the Modern Library edition of his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, pointing out that there is no historical basis for portraying Nat as marrying, as other writers have claimed. In an Author’s Note Mr. Styron says that the lack of information about Turner’s early and private life gave him “the utmost freedom of imagination in reconstructing events.” The same might be said of Nate Parker, his film being more of an indictment of slavery and the misuse of the Bible than a biography of an historically sketchy but important figure. Today’s headlines of police shootings of black males and demonstrations and rioters protesting these demonstrate that racism still exists, even if the form is not as extreme as in 1831.When the Supreme Court struck down key points of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the grounds that racism had receded the naïve justices proved that we still need the warning written in 1905 by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Note: I cannot conclude the review without some mention of the 2002 rape case that director/actor Nate Parker and Jean Celestin were involved in when they were students at and members of the Pen State wrestling team. Some have urged the public to boycott the film because of this. I can understand this sentiment, especially in the light of the traumatized alleged victim’s suicide, but I believe this film is of such importance that this is another case in which wemust separate the work from the artist.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.
If you find this review helpful, please help support the site by going to the Store and purchasing an issue or a subscription.