‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a Necessary Look at Nat Turner as an American Hero
"What happens if we start celebrating Nat Turner as a hero in this country?"
It's a rhetorical question that actor and director Nate Parker recently posed in an interview with The Breakfast Club. And at its core, that's what Turner's much talked-about film The Birth of a Nation is about.
The Birth of a Nation does two fundamental things: one, tell Nat Turner's story as that of a true American hero; and two, to flip the way that we view Christianity, which has historically and currently often been used to oppress black people. It has also often solely been portrayed as a detriment to black struggle; a vessel for the tenets of nonviolence and "turning the other cheek"—as opposed to a galvanizing catalyst for revolution.
In this film, Jesus is not a blue-eyed, pale-faced keeper of weeping, feeble-minded oppressed black people who are waiting patiently for supernatural salvation from a God who only acknowledges the subservient and weak. The movie draws a rhetorical line from Turner's interpretation of God's will for freedom during slavery, to the black church of the Civil Rights Movement—whose morals were eventually widely traded for the oppressive-yet-popular prosperity gospel ideology that infects our communities today.
And those are two very important messages being presented.
The Birth of Nation isn't preoccupied with the reactionary responses expected when the intimate horrors of slavery are graphically detailed. There are a few cringe-worthy scenes that are undeniably affecting, but the film doesn't linger there. Nor is the movie building on the mythological aspects of Nat Turner that transformed him into a superhuman warrior, or a mentally disturbed religious fanatic, as was done in 1967's fictional, Pulitzer Prize winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. There are no Nat Turner-as-Luke Cage moments in the short rebellion scenes. After watching this film, you probably won't be inspired to strike up a violent revolt. That doesn't at all seem to be this film's intent; The Birth of a Nation is simply about depicting Nat Turner as a true American hero and combatting the erasure of his legacy. And Parker accomplishes that.
In a country that has justified oppression often based on a fear of black men (as illustrated in the original 1915 propaganda film from whence Parker gets his movie's title), the idea that a black man who so violently revolted against his white oppressor could be deemed a "hero" by American standards is almost unfathomable. American patriotism teaches us that only those who believe they are white are allowed to demand freedom, even violently. Nat Turner as the truest example of an American hero--not just a "black hero"—is jarring. And that's why it's so important to portray him as such.
While Steve McQueen's excellent 12 Years a Slave was nearly perfect cinematically and very necessary, it was bleak and soul-crushing. And while Quentin Tarantino's D'Jango Unchained was about a former enslaved man exacting his own brand of justice; it was merely visceral, escapist entertainment. It may have felt empowering when D'Jango coolly killed virtually every white person in his path, burned down the plantation and rode off into glory with his woman, but that was complete fiction--a revenge Western. The power of Birth of a Nation is it's telling of the story of a normal man acting on his convictions. Nat Turner is humanized and real.
Parker's acting is impressive and award-worthy—particularly in the scenes with his wife, Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King. While Parker's directing eye is sharp, and there is a lot of great imagery and composition, he sometimes relies too heavily upon a few cliche cinematic tropes (swelling music, quick montages and flashbacks). The rebellion scenes were too short given the amount of time spent building up to the final act. It's very obvious that Parker wanted this film to stand alongside Mel Gibson's Braveheart in terms of his depiction of a hero, and as he said in an interview, to eventually be shown in classrooms. Still, I was left wanting to see more of what went on at the plantations following Turner and his men's takeover— the reaction of the enslaved, the plotting, the actual battles they faced.
Overall, the character development comes second to the desire to portray Turner as a hero, which sometimes compromises the emotional impact of the film and a deeper view into Turner's moral complexities, which if explored, could've been fascinating. In fact, the most well-drawn character in the film aside from Nat Turner (who again is thinly developed in spite of Parker's acting skill) might be the plantation owner, Samuel Turner (played by Armie Hammer.) Sam Turner's fate illustrates that there were no "good whites" who couldn't help but to be slave owners. If you were actively participating in slavery, no amount of moral deliberating (in this case drinking to oblivion) could save you.
While there has been conversation about the depiction of women in the film, undoubtedly intently focused upon because of the allegations against Parker and his subsequent handling of those allegations (he was acquitted of rape in 1999), I believe, in this film, the women—Turner's wife, mother and grandmother—are his solace, where he finds peace but also where he finds strength, counsel and a firmer sense of purpose. There's been discussion about whether the rape of his wife is historically accurate—but in truth, very little is known about his wife at all. Given the nature of the film, and in falling in line most historical Hollywood dramas, I'm fine with a few liberties being taken to tell the story, as long as those liberties remain accurate in the context of the timing and setting of the film.
And while the rape of Turner's wife was certainly an emotional turning point and perhaps further justified the murder of several plantation owners for moviegoers, Turner's revolutionary behavior doesn't surface until he is whipped for baptizing a white man. Turner's struggle with his faith being used as a tool of oppression is illustrated throughout the entire film, and it's this critical event that ultimately serves as his awakening moment. This point is significant, particularly when considering the role that Christianity has played in both black resistance and black suppression.
The Birth of a Nation acts as a framework for observation on where we are as a people now, and it illustrates that, though the battle has not changed fundamentally, our reaction to it can, because we can be empowered by men like Nat Turner. Because of films like this and even the breakout WGN series, Underground--which also illustrates black rebellion—no longer can the country gloss over slavery or present a whitewashed, sanitized version of black people's subjugation. And more importantly, our heroes will not only be presented in a way that fits into the false narrative of subjection that America has historically tried to present as truth in its effort to nullify movements and revolution.
On that front, even with its flaws, The Birth of a Nation is a rare success. And it's worth seeing.