The United States of America, which nearly split apart in one of history’s bloodiest civil wars, still lives under the long shadow of slavery and its aftermath. Even with a two-term African American president, racism remains deeply ingrained in the American body politic. The Black Lives Matter movement has arisen in response to the endemic violence on the streets of America’s cities. And the party of Abraham Lincoln, the greatest Republican president, has chosen as its standard bearer an intemperate narcissist who stokes racial prejudice and draws support from white supremacists.
This is the troubled atmosphere in which Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (https://www.facebook.com/TheBirthofaNation/) will have its theatrical release on Oct. 7, exactly one month before the U.S. presidential election vote.
An assumption of white superiority ran through D.W. Griffiths’ 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, celebrated ever since as a foundational work of cinema. It featured Klansmen as white knights. A century later, Parker has very consciously chosen to appropriate this title in a counter-narrative of black resistance and revolution against white domination. Its heroes are slaves who took up arms against their owners and oppressors — specifically an 1831 revolt that took place in Virginia’s Southampton County led by the charismatic Nat Turner.
Parker’s Birth of a Nation was the sensation of the Sundance festival where it had its world premiere, earning multiple standing ovations and winning both the top grand jury and audience awards after being acquired by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. It is a personal triumph for Parker who devoted seven years to bringing it to the screen as writer, director, co-producer and actor in the key lead role. He invests the adult persona of Turner with a riveting singular intensity.
So it’s unfortunate how much controversy has arisen since Sundance over the fact that, 17 years ago while students at Penn State University, Parker and a roommate, Jean Celestin — who has a writing credit on the film — faced charges of sexual assault. Parker was acquitted and the case against Celestin was overturned. In 2012, the complainant committed suicide after several previous attempts. Parker has never denied his past while insisting he was innocent of the charge and found to be so. He has also repeatedly admitted how much he regrets some sexist bad behaviour during his younger years. That’s not enough to satisfy critics eager to pounce on the movie and its creator. Indeed debate over whether the artist can be separated from the art dominated the movie’s international premiere during last month’s Toronto Film Festival with much speculation about the stigma hurting any Oscar chances.
What gets lost in all the noise are The Birth of a Nation’s important merits that should be the main focus of attention.
The early scenes of Turner as a boy (played by Tony Espinosa) begin with an ancestral ceremony among the slaves. He has dreams and marks on his body which may foretell a future as a prophetic leader. Although growing up in a violent world in which runaway slaves are hunted like animals, young Nat is fortunate to be able to learn to read. In the white owner household he’s even allowed to play with the male heir, Samuel (Griffin Freeman), and the mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) gives him a Bible to study. That doesn’t spare Nat from becoming another labourer in the cotton fields of the family plantation.
Upon the patriarch’s death, a grown-up Samuel (Armie Hammer) becomes Nat’s master while Nat (Parker) uses his biblical knowledge to serve as a Baptist preacher to his fellow slaves. In a fateful episode Nat relies on his shared childhood with Samuel to persuade him to rescue an abused slave girl named Cherry (Aja Naomi King) by purchasing her. In the years that follow Nat and Cherry will be allowed to marry and have a daughter. Not that Samuel is particularly enlightened. Like other white owners he holds the whip hand of the master race for which slaves must toil and against which any transgressions must be savagely punished.
At this point the literate Nat is not seen as a threat to white power. Quite the contrary. His skills as a preacher attract the notice of a slimy “Reverend” Walthall (Mark Boone Jr.) who convinces Samuel to rent Nat out to other plantations where having a black man deliver a gospel of submission to authority is seen to be useful in pacifying a restive slave population. There is a biblical justice to how this backfires, as Nat, witnessing the appalling cruelties inflicted on his slave congregations, finds new meaning and purpose in the Bible’s verses. As he says: “I’ve been following the Lord a long time. I’m going back through his words with new eyes. For every verse they use to support our bondage, there’s another one demanding our freedom.”
The breaking point is reached as Nat becomes an instrument of God’s wrath leading slaves against masters. To reverse a metaphor, hoes and ploughshares are turned into swords of righteous retribution. “On to Jerusalem!” is the battle cry as Nat heads a holy crusade that explodes into a murderous slaughter. There are extremely gruesome scenes as the revolt spreads like a wildfire, burning only briefly before being mercilessly suppressed as soldiers are brought in to extinguish the flames. Some 60 whites and several hundred blacks were killed in the conflagration.
With Nat a fugitive and slaves being killed indiscriminately, it may seem to have been a suicidal struggle with no hope of success. In the end, Nat was captured and horribly executed before a screaming white crowd. Was he a divinely inspired symbol of defiance or a madman leaving a legacy of death? Parker’s uncompromising vision clearly favours the former. There is an almost Christ-like aura that surrounds Turner’s sacrificial death promising future redemption. Indeed this part of the movie could be called “The Passion of Nat Turner.” Its perspective differs markedly from that of William Styron’s 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which has been much attacked by African American critics. (An interesting parallel could also be made with the disputed interpretation of Louis Riel’s failed 19th-century revolt in Canada’s Northwest Territories.)
Both as actor and director Parker brings an uncompromising vision to the subject. With impeccable attention to period details (filming took place in Georgia) and frequent close-ups on facial expressions conveying deep emotion, Parker fills the screen with the blood-stained racial birth pangs of a nation under God, the union of which stands as an unfulfilled challenge. Like the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, this is not cinema for the faint of heart.
Parker, who grew up in Virginia just 67 kilometres from where the 1831 revolt occurred, clearly sees his recreation of it as having contemporary resonance. Being brutally honest about America’s racial past is a way of reclaiming that history for the descendants of those victimized by it. At Sundance he told audiences that “resistance is in the air,” explaining that “my art is my weapon.” In this and subsequent appearances he has appealed to viewers to work for change wherever there is injustice.
The impact of the movie remains to be seen. In the febrile environment of an ugly election campaign one can only hope it will help avert the possibility of putting a racist in the White House that was built by slaves.