Ever since its Sundance premiere this past January and in the months leading up to its theatrical release, Nate Parker has been candid in admitting that The Birth of a Nation – a film he stars in and has written, directed, and produced – was intentionally named after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, which has remained infamous for its sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan and has been deemed in some film circles to be nothing more than white supremacist propaganda. He has applied the title to a dramatization of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, which is to say he has knowingly used it in the spirit of irony, applying it to a story that speaks out against racism rather than for it.
That Parker’s Birth of a Nation is provocative, that it’s intentionally designed to shock and repulse and push buttons, there can be absolutely no question. But I believe there’s more at work here, that it’s not just another period drama about the horrors and inhumanity of slavery. In depicting the life of Nat Turner, who channelled his literacy and his faith into the days-long slaughter of over sixty white slave owners in Southampton County, Virginia, I believe Parker is examining a different kind of birth, namely the birth of terrorism. Like many terrorists, Turner was driven into a blinding rage, not just by his own years of racism and mistreatment, but by those of other slaves as well. Also like many terrorists, he used his Christian beliefs to justify horrific, bloody acts of retaliatory violence.
It goes without saying that Parker doesn’t condone America’s history of racism. Most people, myself included, would agree with him wholeheartedly. Having said that, I’m not convinced he condoned Turner’s methods of trying to end racism, which amounted to nothing more than vengeance. If Parker was intent on examining the rebellion, surely he already knew how it ended, namely with Turner and all of his recruits being executed. 100 to 200 other enslaved and free blacks that had nothing to do with the rebellion were also executed, and laws were passed blocking blacks rights to education and assembly. In their efforts to stop racism, Turner and his followers ended up making it worse.
Armed with this understanding, Parker made a film about a man who was right to try and bring about change, but who went about it the wrong way. He reacted with anger and hatred, and he inflicted violence. Yes, there’s no denying that, as a slave, violence was inflicted on him and others. But as the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. As a man of God, you’d think Turner would have understood this. Of course, I’m saying this as someone who not only never had to endure slavery, but also grew up aware of the nonviolent civil disobedience practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. No such people existed for Nat Turner. He had only his Bible – and specific passages that, when taken out of context, supported his need for revenge.
Parker has cast himself as Turner, and he gives a performance that could get him noticed come the awards season. We watch Turner’s gradual progression from a non-troublesome slave to a murderous radical with mounting gloom, for it’s obvious he has let his years of pain and suffering get the better of him. It’s not the triumphant rise of a hero, but rather the tragic fall of a decent human being. We also get uniformly good performances out of Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union. King is especially good as Turner’s wife; her own unfortunate encounter with a group of white men only fuels Turner’s hatred, which is made all the more disheartening by the fact that, as human beings ourselves, we in the audience can sympathize.
Anyone who sees The Birth of a Nation and takes it as a call to action, especially now when it seems the divide between African American communities and police districts is wider than ever, most definitely wasn’t paying attention. Parker obviously credits Nat Turner for being fed up with racism, but he also clearly doesn’t want anyone to break into other people’s homes and hack them to death with hatchets. He wants us to understand that there are more productive and infinitely more effective ways of bringing about social changes. Perhaps he has made his own contribution by reclaiming and repurposing the title to a very controversial film.