We watch the historical drama “The Birth of a Nation” through our modern lens. And when the violence unfolds on screen as the bloody slave uprising takes place, some of us will shake our heads in disbelief.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a significant film. It should be seen. And although it will be impossible to dismiss the controversy surrounding the film’s production, acquisition, promotion, and uncertain release strategy, viewed in a vacuum, it makes a worthy double feature with filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s excellent “Selma.” The two films capture the understandable response to oppression. Each film also serves to humanize historical figures, like DuVernay did for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Selma,” director Nate Parker makes us understand slave revolutionary Nat Turner. These were men first and heroic figures second.
This 2016 “The Birth of a Nation” is not to be confused with D. W. Griffith’s iconic, but, shameful 1915 film by the same name. It is no mistake that writer/director Nate Parker has appropriated the title for his film. And precisely because of this decision, Parker’s film brilliantly reminds us of past cinematic missteps as well as the wrongness and evils of the era of slavery.
Chronicling the life and exploits of slave preacher Nat Turner, “The Birth of a Nation” exposes the intertwining of religion and slavery. Turner (played by the film’s director Nate Parker) is singled out as a boy for his intelligence. The matriarch of a plantation, Elizabeth Turner (a lovely Penelope Ann Miller), decides to bring the boy Nat into her home and educate him. But when times get economically tough, Nat returns to the field to pick cotton. But Elizabeth is sure to share with Nat what she calls the greatest book ever written—the Bible.
Years pass, and in addition to distinguishing himself as a good worker, Nat becomes an accomplished preacher and orator. And this doesn’t go unnoticed. The new head of the household, Elizabeth’s tortured son Samuel (played by Armie Hammer), decides to rent Nat out in a exploitive effort to quell slave rebellion through religion. And the twisted highjacking of Christianity by insidious slave owners who have been enveloped by the evil of a corrupt and inhuman institution manages for a time to maintain the status quo. But as any Christian well knows, the good book doesn’t condone slavery.
In time, Nat can no longer misuse his faith, and in dream sequences, he remembers the faith of his people. His response to unspeakable oppression is bloody and, arguably, appropriate. When the violence starts in this film, it is almost too much to take. And viewed through our modern lens, hard to believe. But imagine what you would do? Imagine what choice an oppressed people might have? At that point in history, violent revolution was the response that any right thinking individual would expect. It’s human.
“The Birth of a Nation” works because of the strength of it’s director/star’s conviction—most notably revealed in his piercing on-screen performance. Unfortunately, off-screen Nate Parker’s moral high ground has suffered a terrible blow because he was once accused (along with his story co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin) of rape when he was a student at Penn State. Parker was arrested, and he was found not guilty by a jury that heard the facts of the case. But Celestin was convicted, although his conviction was later overturned on appeal.
Much has been written about the Penn State case, and I mention it here only to point out the problem many are having separating the art from the artist or the message from the messenger. And while Parker no longer can serve as the proper spokesperson for his excellent work, others must take up the burden. “The Birth of a Nation” should be seen by broad audiences while somehow ignoring the production’s troubled back-story. But is that even possible?
It is an understatement to say that there are race problems still brewing in this country. Without endorsing either side of the political spectrum, one telling statement at the first Presidential debate concerned the concept of “implicit bias.” And VP candidate Mike Pence pointed out in this week’s most recent debate that institutional bias exists in the criminal justice system. Reform was called for by both sides. Talking about the existence, non-existence, or potential of bias (in any form) is vitally important. And a fine film like “The Birth of a Nation” should serve to extend that discussion.