The morning after the short-lived 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner begins in Nate Parker’s directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, a blood-spattered Nat (Parker) gazes up at the new dawn, reckoning that by that hour on any other day he’d be two rows into his daily work picking cotton, with a half-full sack.
The idle remark prompts similar reflections from the small knot of rebel slaves at Nat’s side. One would be on his way to the barn to feed the stock. Another would be in the smokehouse boiling water, “thinking about dumping it on Master’s head” — a crack eliciting knowing laughter from the others. One mentions dodging his master’s whip, adding quietly, “Not today.”
It’s a powerful scene: a moment of heady freedom for men who have never known such a thing before. The day stretches before them, and while they aren’t exactly at liberty to do as they please, for the first time in their lives no one will tell them what to do.
Like its subversively chosen namesake of a century ago, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War melodrama lionizing the Ku Klux Klan, Parker’s The Birth of a Nation has become overshadowed by controversy.
Rapturously received at its Sundance debut in January amid the height of the #OscarsSoWhite uproar, the film’s reputation has since become complicated by new scrutiny regarding a 1999 college rape charge implicating both Parker and his co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin, particularly in light of the revelation that their accuser committed suicide in 2012. Parker, who maintains his innocence, was acquitted; Celestin was convicted, but the conviction was overturned, and the case was never retried.
Whatever happened in 1999 doesn’t make The Birth of a Nation a better or worse film. But neither films nor viewers exist in a vacuum, and how audiences respond to films is complex and influenced by many things. Turner’s rebellion in the film is motivated partly by the rape of a slave (Gabrielle Union) by a white man; an earlier-gang rape of Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is also a motivating factor. Neither incident is part of the historical record, although rape was certainly part of the atrocity of the culture of slavery.
For me, the best place to begin thinking about The Birth of a Nation is with appreciation and gratitude for what it adds and for what it offers that I’ve never seen before — starting with the scene described at the opening of this review. 12 Years a Slave was the first fact-based Hollywood film about the slave experience in America; Birth of a Nation is the second, and the first such film about slave resistance. (The real-life protagonists of Amistad were white, and the African prisoners who overthrew their white captors had not yet experienced American slave labor.)
No account of American slavery is complete without the reality of slave revolts and other forms of resistance to slavery. They are an important corrective to sanitized or emasculating representations of slavery, of slaves as either largely happy and well-treated or else as passive and childlike and unable to resist.
At the same time, Birth of a Nation goes further than 12 Years in depicting the range of relations between slaves and their masters, including relatively benevolent ones. The film opens provocatively in this regard (after a prologue) with what looks like it might be a white boy tormenting a slave boy, but turns out to be something else entirely.
A kind of friendship exists between the boys, who will grow up to be Nat Turner and his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), a man who, like the glimpse we get of his father, prides himself on his decent treatment of slaves. Samuel repeatedly defends Nat from more brutal white men, and his relative decency only makes his capacity for cruelty more sickening — and credible.
Their boyhood friendship is real, but corrupted at the roots by the soil it grows in: a reality driven home by a ghastly counterpoint in a later scene in which the adult Nat witnesses two young girls of different races skipping out of a house. What makes it ghastly is that the white girl merrily leads the blithe black girl by a noose draped slackly around her neck.
It’s a moment of awakening because it’s an image of obliviousness: To the slave girl, the noose around her neck isn’t a symbol of violent subjugation or death; it’s simply an unquestioned part of the fabric of the way things are and always have been.
This queasy blend of amity and oppression is characteristic of Nat’s experiences in the Turner household. It begins not only with Samuel, but with Sam’s mother, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), a courtly soul who recognizes Nat’s intelligence, reasoning, “If the good Lord gave that boy a gift to read, we’d be remiss to let it go to waste,” and tells his mother, Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis), that she intends to bring him into the house to teach him.
“And don’t expect him back anytime soon,” she says, as warmly as if she weren’t taking a young boy from his mother’s arms. In the library Elizabeth pulls Nat back from the laden shelves, explaining, “These books are for white folks. They’re full of things your kind wouldn’t understand.” Nat’s text will be the Bible — to be fair, “The best book ever written,” as Elizabeth says. It’s a fateful turning point in Nat’s life.
The prominent, polyvalent exploration of the uses of religion and especially Scripture, both to condone slavery and to condemn it, to sedate slaves and to inflame them, is one of the most striking and welcome things about the film.
12 Years a Slave hinted at this: Slave owners glibly quote the Bible to justify the status quo, while slaves sustain their spirits with a defiant rendition of Roll Jordan Roll, and Brad Pitt’s pious abolitionist grounds his opposition to slavery in his faith.
In Birth of a Nation, though, the role of religion in the culture of slavery becomes a major preoccupation. Elizabeth brings young Nat to church, and he reads from the Bible before the congregation. Much later, Nat’s fellow slaves at the Turner estate look to him for pastoral support, and he becomes a preacher.
Then comes a second fateful turning point: Samuel’s venal pastor Rev. Walthall (Mark Boone Junior), knowing Samuel to be in some economic hardship, casually suggests that other slave owners might be willing to pay for Nat to preach to their slaves … about such themes as obedience and submission.
So Nat becomes a kind of circuit preacher, hired to preach captivity to slaves rather than liberty. At the same time, he becomes more familiar with a more brutal side of the institution than is his daily experience, and the words increasingly stick in his throat.
One day, after witnessing a particularly horrifying spectacle, Nat can no longer “say what he’s supposed to,” as a monstrous owner puts it. That day Nat goes way off script with his sermon, to the elation of the slaves.
What happens as a result? How does the owner respond, or how does Samuel deal with this seditious move? Alas, we aren’t told. Later comes an extraordinary moment in which Nat, invited to say grace for Samuel and a house full of guests (a courtesy urbanely allowed by Rev. Walthall), phrases himself with such subversive delicacy that the white guests give heartfelt amens to what are in fact imprecations against themselves. That pivotal sermon, though, was far clearer in intent. There should have been consequences.
Still later, Nat proclaims a private word to his own fellow slaves at the Turner estate, no longer limiting himself to “the few pages and sections I’ve been allowed” to share from the Bible, but reading the whole thing “with new eyes.” What he sees now is the biblical case for the liberation of slaves and the condemnation of their masters.
Like 12 Years a Slave, Birth of a Nation is anchored by a spectacularly controlled central performance by an actor playing a man who endures and witnesses great suffering and evil, but is almost never allowed to register fully how he feels.
Also like 12 Years, Birth of a Nation offers a sanctified portrait of its protagonist, downplaying ambiguities and rough edges. The historical Turner’s religiosity was more zealous, prophetic and mystical than what we see here; Parker gives us a few scattered visions, including an angelic child with wings, but nothing really odd or apocalyptic.
We never see Nat wrestling with God in prayer or fasting. When he makes his case for rebellion, he sounds shrewd and intriguing, not fervent and intense. (Strangely, while the historical Turner was regarded as a religious prodigy even from his youth, the film situates this early sense of religious expectation not in a Christian context, but in secret African rituals supposedly preserved by the slaves behind their masters’ backs.)
Unlike 12 Years, a movie that made no concession to the audience’s thirst for comeuppance, Birth of a Nation is very much a revenge movie — one that has been compared to Braveheart, even if Turner is never as wild-eyed or ferocious as Mel Gibson’s William Wallace. (In the credits Parker thanks Gibson, who advised him on making the film.)
Though closer to history than Braveheart, Birth of a Nation’s very title is an indication of its aspirations as counter-mythology. An early scene in which an armed posse on horseback accost a black man at night, threatening to shoot him if he moves, resonates with recent controversies over shootings of black men by police. A shocking moment in which Nat is struck for daring to speak to a white woman on the street could easily have been set a century later.
To its credit, Birth of a Nation allows the violent uprising to be disturbing and gruesome. Men and women are slaughtered in their beds, and one man’s corpse is savagely hacked and his head decapitated. But then, the murdered man was the first rapist mentioned above, and his killer was the victim’s husband.
Whatever its flaws, The Birth of a Nation is powerful and provocative. The tragic ambiguity of Samuel Turner as well as his wife Elizabeth, the shifting religious themes moving from accommodation to condemnation, and the messy, dreadful spectacle of slaves rising up to fight a war they can’t possibly win will stay with me long after many of this year’s less controversial prestige pictures have been forgotten.
Caveat Spectator: Intense, often disturbing graphic violence and killings; brief nudity and a pair of offscreen rapes; frequent racial epithets and some cursing. Mature viewing.