Musings on The Birth of a Nation and Nat Turner’s rebellion

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(-Disclaimer: I fully understand why many people are reluctant to see and support this movie given the  allegations swirling around Nate Parker’s past. My review, however, is focused on the film itself, and should not be seen as a statement about the alleged legal and moral transgressions of the film’s creator).

I have many thoughts about Nate Parker’s controversial new film, The Birth of a Nation, so bear with me. Before getting to the mild spoilers below, let me say right off that the film has a TON of historical inaccuracies that will anger and frustrate many historians, myself included. Yet the key to appreciating this very powerful film is to understand that it is “based” on a true story (as the opening credits proclaim), only using the broad outlines of Nat Turner’s rebellion to tell its largely fictional tale. While the most provocative aspects of the event are missing or obscured, other important dynamics of it are not, and the film delivers them exceptionally well.

I often have my classes read about the 1831 rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, write an essay on it, and engage in a discussion of whether or not Nat Turner was a “hero.” Was he a murderer or a warrior in a justified war? This almost always leads to interesting exchanges. I had hoped that this film would leave audience members pondering the same thing, believing that if it did so, it would blow their minds and induce some deep and dark questions about antebellum slavery. Unfortunately, the film does not do that, giving us an interpretation of Turner that was embraced by 1960s black radicals–an almost wholly heroic man waging a war against slavery and the brutalization of black lives.

In doing so, Parker has to omit important historical details and distort others, stripping the Turner rebellion of what I think is its most important consideration: What does the hatred unleashed during the revolt reveal about the institution of slavery? Southampton County was dominated by small farms and enslaved blacks that had close personal connections with whites that most of them had known their whole lives. Their workload was relatively lighter than those on larger plantations, and especially in the Deep South. Many, like Nat, were routinely allowed to travel throughout the community to visit friends and family members on other farms, and masters were somewhat indulgent of minor transgressions. And yet, in a volcanic eruption of rage, enslaved blacks let loose a hellish and unspeakably horrific orgy of violence that involved the use of axes, clubs, and other instruments to decapitate and bludgeon some 60 whites into bloody pulps–a large number of them women and children (and in one instance, an infant in its cradle). Surely, such fury tells us much about the true evils of slavery. If we condemn Turner and his rebels, I often tell my students, we must in the same breath condemn the institution that created the anger and hatred revealed in the brutal nature of the murders.

Sadly, The Birth of a Nation does little to force audiences into the moral dilemma of considering whether or not Turner was a hero, because it opts for depicting all the standard slavery horrors that we normally get in movies (depicting an “every South” rather than the particular dynamics in Southampton), and the rebellion itself is given short shrift. We only see the whites that seemingly deserved it the most get killed.

Further, Turner is not depicted as motivated by a lifelong mystic faith that he was called to a higher purpose (though the opening scene and other vague dreamlike sequences suggest it). Rather than the supernatural voices and strange visions that Turner was convinced frequently spoke to him his whole life, it is the rape and brutal beating of his wife, the rape of a close friend’s wife, and a whipping he suffers, that instigate his rebellious plans. In truth, Turner’s motivations were deeper and more psychologically disturbing than the film demonstrates, which weakens what the movie could have said about the institution of slavery.

And yet, the film brilliantly presents a story that is powerful in and of itself. This is a excellent film, with beautiful cinematography, pitch perfect use of sound and music, and near uniformly superb acting. Much like the writings of Frederick Douglass, Nate Parker’s movie demonstrates that slavery tainted everything it touched, including seemingly “good” masters. More impressively, it successfully depicts how important black families and personal relationships were to enduring enslavement. The first hour of the movie centers on a tender love story that blooms within the confines of an evil system. The love offers a light in a dark world, and aside from Roots, we rarely see this depicted in films about slavery. Further, the film makes it clear that an enslaved individual’s quality of life was influenced by the type of master they had, and that this could vary from farm to farm. One scene that will long haunt me involves a sadistic master’s brutal treatment of a slave that refuses to eat, and it is all the more powerful because it does not involve the typical whipping scene we so often get. In the end, the film leaves us with an image of the Old South that is far from moonlight and magnolias.

****Here come very mild spoilers in a discussion of the film’s inaccuracies. Skip to my last two paragraphs if you want to avoid spoilers ****

The historical inaccuracies, distortions, and omissions in this film are numerous and frustrating. Some are only minor, but still annoying. For instance, slave patrollers would not have tried to kill a surrendering runaway slave, nor raped and beaten a slave on her master’s property, as they would have then owed financial restitution to the master. Turner’s mother had been brought directly from Africa, but in the film she has no African accent, nor do we see her infuse her son’s religion with African traditions. We can forgive many of these inaccuracies, such as the simplification of Nat’s ownership. As property, he was transferred between masters several times, and yet the movie depicts him as the lifetime property of a man that he grew up playing with as a child. This is a case of a screenwriter justifiably condensing things for the sake of streamlining the story, and depicts a situation that was true for many slaves.

However, bigger problems involve the rebellion itself, which is largely sanitized (yes, it was even more brutal than what is seen on the screen). There is no orgy of violence that shows slaves chasing down, beating, and chopping to death women and children. The only slayings we see are folks that the film has depicted as wholly bad (except Nat’s owner, but he had recently angered Nat by requiring his friend’s wife to sleep with a visiting guest, and also had recently given Nat a brutal beating). In truth, a large percent of the victims were women and children, including those at a boarding school that the rebels butchered and threw on a pile. Further, Nat is shown directly involved in the killings, when in fact he murdered only one person (a woman he chased down and beat to death with a fence rail). Instead, we see him kill his master and a slave patroller that almost killed his father and that raped and beat his wife (neither of which actually happened). There is no moral dilemma in these killings, they are an act of justice.

Further, there is also a pitched battle in the town of Jerusalem that did not happen, as the militia was able to keep the rebels out of the city. Nat’s rebels are always under his control, steadfast, and resolute, when in fact, he lingered behind during their march of bloody vengeance and many of his cohorts fell into pillaging and drunkenness that slowed them down.

But the inaccuracy and omissions that weaken the film the most are in the ending. In the film, Nat turns himself in when he discovers that innocent blacks are being murdered until he is found. He heroically sacrifices himself by walking boldly into town to surrender to a mob. In fact, Turner hid for months in a couple of dugout spots in the woods, and was captured by accident by a man that stumbled upon him. Parker’s portrayal, of course, is meant to give Turner a heroic finale, but it does not match the reality.

Most frustrating of all is that the movie robs us of Nat’s courtroom and jail cell confessions. Here was the moment when we could hear Nat’s eloquent words about why he did it. Nate Parker’s screenplay could have quoted Turner directly, condemning an evil institution and revealing his belief in a divinely ordained mission to eradicate slavery. And yet, we get nothing but his (accurate) last words of “I’m ready,” and a Christ-like depiction of martyrdom at the end of a noose.

****Spoilers over***

Despite these historical inaccuracies, this is a film that gets a lot of things right. Yes, as other reviewers have pointed out, slave women are largely depicted as needing a savior and are not front-and-center during the rebellion—but much else about the rebellion is wrong, not just the omission of women. Still, enslaved women are an integral part of the film. They are portrayed as the core of slave families, responsible for instilling the self esteem and self worth that the institution of slavery seeks to destroy. The enslaved community and its culture is shown as important to survival by creating camaraderie, love, and hope, elements that are sadly missing in many current slave movies. Yes, the film needs more of this, as do many of our other presentations of slavery (and if you have read much of my writing you know this is one of my pet peeves), but this film is about a true instance of violent rebellion, not day-to-day slave resistance. Further, the broad details of Nat Turner’s rebellion are correctly depicted: Turner is motivated by the wrathful God of the Old Testament; his preaching gives him many advantages that other slaves did not have; yet he leads a rebellion that shatters the image of happy and contented slaves (as it did at the time). The Old South we see in the film is a strange, complex, nay schizophrenic world, with a mixture of sadistic and more benign masters, tender, affectionate, and sometimes joyful slave families, and yet a palpable sense of dread and foreboding hovers over it all.

The Birth of a Nation is a fine and powerful film made with skill and passion. If you accept that it is merely based on a true story, and not actually the true story, you will be able to enjoy it and see it for what it is: another powerful and accurate depiction of the antebellum South that demolishes the lies of the Lost Cause and many of the Hollywood movies of the past.

Oh, and you’re gonna love that last shot just before the film fades to black.

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