The Birth of a Nation Redux
A dramatic depiction of the biggest slave revolt in U.S. history
White lawmen stop a black man, demand identification and, unsatisfied by what he produces, violence commences. It sounds like a case for Black Lives Matter but the incident, near the start of The Birth of a Nation, is drawn from the historical reality of the Old South where patrols stopped blacks deemed to be in the wrong place. The current headlines have a long backstory rooted in slavery and the endemic racism of early American society.
Writer-director Nate Parker titled his film The Birth of a Nation in rebuke of the earlier movie by the same name. The original Birth of a Nation (1915) is considered groundbreaking in cinematic terms, yet director D.W. Griffith’s story of the post-Civil War South depicted blacks as subhuman and the Ku Klux Klan as saviors. Inspired by Griffith’s film, the long dormant Klan revived, regrouped and launched a new wave of terror. Parker’s Birth is another story altogether, set pre-Civil War and concerns the most notorious slave revolt in U.S. history, the 1831 uprising led by Nat Turner.
Parker cast himself in the role of Nat Turner and composed a scenario dramatically plausible while not adhering to all the known facts, which are admittedly scant and subject to contradictory interpretations. The Birth of a Nation is, as the opening title proclaims, “Based on a True Story.” Parker’s Turner was relatively fortunate as a boy; the wife of his owner taught him to read but forbade him any book but the Bible. He was the favored slave of the young man, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), who inherited him after his father’s death. He encouraged Nat to assume the role of preacher to his slaves and rented him out as an itinerant minister for neighboring plantations. The slave owners assumed that religion would serve as the opiate of their property, never suspecting the subversive potential of Christianity.
The Birth of a Nation’s purpose is to show the cruelty of the slave system and the racial assumptions underlying it. Most of the slave owners and their henchmen are degraded, physically and morally; even the relatively benign Samuel has limits to his sympathy. Some of the film’s most powerful and heart-rending scenes concern the trauma of slaves, especially women utterly at the mercy of the men who regarded them as less than human. Parker is especially effective in his role as preacher, his words tumbling like burning coals, sparks that kindle hope and eventually ignite rebellion.
The story behind the making of The Birth of a Nation is encouraging to anyone who thinks that indie filmmaking should be more than ironic tales of millennial romance (set amidst the privileged children of Manhattan). A first-time feature director, Parker was able to raise investors and produced a well-made Hollywood style drama on a modest budget. Accepted at Sundance, Birth found a major studio distributor (reportedly the largest monetary payout at the festival to date) and arrives in wide distribution at an opportune moment. The fear and distrust between back and white that permeates the muggy atmosphere of the film’s antebellum Virginia hasn’t entirely dissipated, nearly two centuries later.