The Birth of a Nation, directed by Nate Parker (Fox Searchlight Films, 2016).
Reviewed by Robert K. Colby
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation chose a historical uprising— the Ku Klux Klan’s coup overthrowing racially egalitarian Reconstruction governments—to cast a vision of a reunited white America advancing ever upward, unhindered by the subdued black masses. A century later, in his film of the same title, director and screenwriter Nate Parker employs a different historical rebellion to uncover the origins of those who were expelled from the American narrative by Griffith’s protagonists. Much as Griffith’s portrayal of klansmen served to erase black leaders, Parker notes that after executing enslaved rebel Nat Turner, white authorities mutilated Turner’s body “in the hopes of preventing a legacy” from his revolt. By imagining and exploring Turner’s life, Parker works to recover this legacy, to connect him to a long history of black liberation, and to reintroduce the black freedom struggle into the national narrative. His success in doing so is limited, however, due equally to the filmmakers’ choices and the complexities of the historical Nat Turner.
The Birth of a Nation depicts Turner’s 1831 uprising, the United States’ deadliest slave revolt. Divinely inspired by visions of cosmic conflict, the enslaved preacher rallied fellow slaves to wreak God’s vengeance upon the local white community. Turner’s force marched across Southampton County, Virginia, killing nearly 60 white men, women, and children while recruiting more men to their cause. When surprised by a combination of militia and US regulars, Turner’s army disintegrated, though Turner survived the battle. Panicked whites subsequently executed somewhere between 30 and 200 (the number favored by Parker) innocent black men and women before eventually capturing and hanging Turner, bringing the scare to a close and leaving Virginians to reckon with the revolt’s causes and to create bulwarks against a future recurrence.
Historians generally understand Turner’s legacy through white reaction: terror and mass lynching, followed by an abortive debate over slavery’s future and a crackdown on what few liberties the enslaved enjoyed. Parker looks beyond white backlash for Turner’s legacy within the African American community. His film also contains several elements useful for conveying the realities of antebellum slavery to a wider audience. Much as they did in the memories of former slaves, slave patrols feature prominently, demonstrating the power of the slaveholding state and the challenges it posed to black families and communities. Turner’s master repeatedly demonstrates the degree to which whites commodified enslaved people. Not only does he purchase a woman at auction, but he profits from Turner’s preaching and uses the rape of an enslaved woman to heighten his economic standing in the community. Moreover, the film unflinchingly depicts the very real punishments, sexual abuse, and mistreatments inflicted on the enslaved, while also gesturing at tensions within the white community— between property rights and racial order, paternalist imperatives and brutal economic dicta.
Ultimately, however, the film’s shortcomings diminish its impact. Setting the movie amidst cotton, grand mansions, and live oaks encourages misconceptions about slavery’s homogeneity. The film also mishandles Turner’s revolt. Aside from a stereotyped house servant, Parker’s slaves universally support the uprising. In 1831, most slaves decided against this, however, weighing the risks of joining the fray. By failing to depict this, the filmmakers missed a chance to emphasize the slave system’s hegemonic power. Moreover, allowing a handful of armed whites to stymie Turner’s advance undermines the revolt’s potency and terror. Somehow, despite this clear defeat, Turner’s rebels reach the armory at Jerusalem (the real Turner never did) and massacre an even larger force of armed whites. Suspending reality in favor of a revenge fantasy confuses much of the film’s commentary about the thoroughgoing power of the slave police state in favor of permitting Turner to kill the film’s primary antagonist.
If the film’s goal is to portray Turner’s revolt as the genesis of the black freedom movement, its larger issues stem from the choice of protagonist. The historical Nat Turner fits comfortably with neither liberal conceptions of racial comity nor black national liberation. Turner’s religious mysticism, rooted in apocalyptic visions of “white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle” and confidence in his own prophetic destiny, shared themes with, but stood apart from, the rhetoric of rights, freedoms, and national belonging that inspired other slave rebels around the Revolutionary Atlantic. Elements of apocalyptic liberation certainly appeared in the minds of the enslaved (e.g., the idea of the Civil War as the year of Jubilee), but Turner’s vision represents a particular strand of African American ideology, one that demands careful treatment in reconciling it with issues of racial violence, justice, rights, and nationhood.
The near total dearth of evidence on Turner’s pre-revolt life provided the director an opportunity to treat Turner’s particular brand of liberation theology with the nuance it deserves. Instead, the filmmakers’ choices in inventing Turner’s backstory out of whole cloth further muddle the issue. In nearly every case, Parker eschews the mystical for the material. He roots Turner’s rebellion particularly in the callous abuse of enslaved men and in the rape of enslaved women. Though Turner’s religion surfaces, its radicalism is largely eroded (indeed, Turner’s Christianity is all but stripped of its ferocity so that it might provide a foil for the violence inflicted on the enslaved), and violence and rape dwarf its significance in Turner’s mind.
Parker pays token homage to Turner’s visions and gestures at his sense of divine purpose but fully develops neither, devoting nearly the whole film to conjuring material explanations for Turner’s revolt. This allows Turner’s rebels to stop in the midst of their revolt for a discussion of the meaning of freedom and brings Turner in line with an American revolutionary tradition, but at the cost of making this prophetic figure all too familiar. By neglecting the historical Turner’s motivations, Parker renders the character incomplete and simplistic, forestalling a discussion of multiple black revolutionary traditions while adequately developing none of them.
Parker’s final shot transforms an enslaved boy watching Nat Turner’s execution into a United States Colored soldier, charging across Southampton in Turner’s footsteps. In doing so, Parker links America’s bloodiest antebellum revolt to the Civil War—a conflict historians such as Steven Hahn have come to consider America’s largest slave revolt. But by shoehorning Turner into this distinctly national narrative of freedom, Parker oversimplifies a complex historical figure, misconstrues his motivations, and creates a neat teleology that elides important strains of the black political tradition.