The story of Nat Turner is not what one would call “commercial.” As we should remember from high-school history class, the enslaved Turner incited a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in 1831 Virginia. And so it is a story of physical and emotional violence and staggering injustice perpetrated by whites against blacks, and the story of homicidal justice exacted by blacks on whites in claiming freedom. And now, at last, the story is a major motion picture called, with whopping irony, The Birth of a Nation.
The Birth of a Nation marks the directorial debut of actor Nate Parker (Red Tails), who also wrote the screenplay and served as a producer. In choosing that title, Parker has historical and political points to make both about American life (in a poetic coda) and American cinema, since Parker shares the title with D.W. Griffith’s notoriously, virulently racist 1915 epic, which propagandized for the KKK. These flourishes suggest a filmmaker with an urgent point of view.
But that’s less apparent in the moments that come between title and fadeout, as Parker essays Turner’s life as a slave, his service as a preacher (exploited by slave owners), his romance with a fellow slave named Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and the events leading to, including, and following the bloody uprising. In part because Parker’s film has the misfortune to follow Steve McQueen’s searing 12 Years a Slave (awarded Best Picture in 2014), The Birth of a Nation at times gives the impression of actors playing dress-up (Parker included) rather than a sense of lived reality.
The film accumulates power as it heads toward its climax and bitter end. No one could be unmoved by the atrocities of slavery and the atrocities of the rebellion and the largely misdirected capital punishment meted out as a result, all brutal (and mostly historically accurate, though for dramatic purposes, the film conflates various of Turner’s masters into one, played by Armie Hammer). To Parker’s credit, he dramatizes a debate over the wisdom of the rebellion, given that the freedoms won are sure to be short-lived and violently consequential to the community.
Still, the depiction of Turner as a romantic hero seeking vengeance, with mystical righteousness, raises some obvious problems (not least of which is that the eye-for-an-eye rebellion included the murders of children). A more deeply considered interpretation of Turner’s story would at least cultivate some ambiguity about his mental health, given the visions he reported (which—including, at one point, a bleeding ear of corn—come off as pretentious in Parker’s hands) and the claim that God had directly endorsed his course of action (when Presidential candidates do the same, what do we think?).
Parker feels he must not only tell Parker’s story but make him a more-or-less uncomplicated hero (akin to Mel Gibson’s William Wallace), when history shows him to be a more complex figure. In a moment when the conversation about race, and racially motivated violence, in America has become more audible, The Birth of a Nation is well-positioned to become a part of that conversation. Unsettlingly, Parker’s historical film depicts a tragic uncivil war that bears comparison to our modern racial struggles, and while it’s history not to be forgotten, it’s also not to be mischaracterized.