The Birth of a Nation
One thing you can say for Nate Parker is that he swings for the fences. Reappropriating the title of the most infamously racist cinematic screeds for his own debut feature as writer and director is certainly an eye-catching move. And the timing couldn’t have been better for The Birth of a Nation to premiere at Sundance eleven days after the 2016 Academy Awards nominations touched off the “Oscars So White” controversy. Eager to get a piece of the backlash, Fox Searchlight snapped it up for a Sundance record-setting $17.5 million.
The film itself tells the story of Nat Turner and his slave rebellion of 1831. Turner must have resonated strongly with Parker, who grew up in the same area of southeast Virginia where Turner spent his entire life as a slave. After his star turn in Beyond the Lights, Parker insisted that his next project be a Turner biopic, and he was determined enough to make that happen.
Turner showed his intelligence early, learning to read and write early despite his position. He was also deeply religious, the Bible being one of the few books he was allowed, if not the only one. And so he gravitated towards preaching to his fellow slaves, and even to a handful of white folks. He had frequent visions, and came to believe he was charged by God with leading a slave revolt, which he did in August of 1831.
Parker chooses to write out most of Turner’s mysticism, despite its prominence in Turner’s own confession. What we get instead is a much more earthly story, with the exception of the idea that Turner was literally marked for greatness by a cluster of keloid dots on his chest. Parker’s Turner works as a circuit preacher, hired from his master, Sam Turner (Armie Hammer), by white slaveholders to pacify their chattel. And on these rounds, Turner witnesses deeper and deeper depravities and inhumanities, until he can’t stand any more.
At times, Parker seems determined to outdo Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in his efforts to shock the audience. Though, to be sure, I have no doubt that each incident truly happened to some slaves, even if not to ones that the historical Turner personally witnessed. But as shocking as these violent episodes are, none is ever quite so powerful as, for instance, McQueen’s quietly horrifying “hanging” scene.
As a particular inciting incident, Parker depicts a sexual assault on Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), by a gang of white men. Again, there is no question that enslaved women were abused in all manners. In fact, the historical records seem to indicate that Nat and Cherry’s “marriage” was a thin pretext on Samuel Turner’s part to cover up his systemic sexual abuse, rather than the tender love story Parker depicts. But vengeance plays better to a modern audience than visions as a motive for rebellion, I suppose. On the other hand, it does come off as somewhat ironic in light of the allegations against Parker and his college roommate and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin.
It seems a loss to rewrite Turner’s character and abandon his own narrative so thoroughly. That said, Parker is hardly the first screenwriter to use historical figures to tell the story he wants rather than the literal truth. Even if Turner was not spurred into action by these atrocities, they did really happen. To that much at least we must bear witness.
Even Parker’s inclination towards aggrandizement should be considered in this light, and mindfully of the fact that he’s hardly unique in that trait. Sure, it smacks of ego to cast oneself as one’s own insurrectionist hero, but tell that to the director and star of Braveheart. Drawing a straight line from Nat Turner’s revolt to the Civil War, and founding the entire African-American identity on the sense of power and rebellion that Parker embraces may be an overstatement subject to debate, but it’s hardly subject to outright rejection.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.