FILM

The Birth of a Nation
By Seth Little With on February 14, 2016

Offered as a corrective to the 1915 racist propaganda film by the same name, The Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner, an African-American slave preacher who led a rebellion against white slave owners in Southampton County, Virginia, 1831. The film is the multi-year project of Nate Parker who stars in the lead role and who also co-wrote, produced, and directed the picture. It premiered at Sundance 2016 and was quickly purchased by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. In order to nurture an intellectual gift, the young black slave boy Nat Turner (Parker) is taught to read the Bible. Such an education is ideal preparation for a preacher, and a preacher he becomes, skillfully delivering sermons to his fellow slaves each week. Respected by his own and somewhat trusted by his white master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), Nat enjoys a relatively stable life. But when Samuel Turner’s business interests take Nat around the county preaching a message of submission to slaves from other plantations, Nat becomes increasingly troubled by the terrible plights of those to whom he preaches. The brutal rape of his own wife by white men foments grief and anger such that Nat interprets a revelatory message from the scriptures, a divine call to action. He believes God has called him to lead a rebellion against the white slave owners in order to exact judgment upon them for the evil they have perpetrated against black people. With a chilling resolve, Nat violently murders his own master before striking neighboring plantations along with a band of insurgents. The rebellion is short lived, and Nat hides away for a time before he is ultimately captured and hanged in the presence of an angry white mob. The movie is clearly designed to elicit empathy and outrage among viewers, and it certainly does so exceedingly well. But I was surprised to find myself empathizing not only with Nat and his fellow slaves but also with his master, Samuel Turner, though, to a lesser degree. This may be the genius of the film, and Nate Parker explains, “Often we paint oppressors as psychopaths, but that's not how it was. These were people who believed they were being benevolent.” By presenting an “oppressor” with whom we may empathize (through his “benevolence”), the film does not permit us to keep our distance from that character presuming a moral superiority. We are much more likely to see ourselves in that character. Similarly, Nat Turner is no cookie-cutter hero. His convictions are admirable, to be sure, but the violence he chooses is highly questionable, especially so in light of the film’s grave conclusion. We are invited to ask the question: what, in the end, was gained from this rebellion? Did Nat choose the low road? Were his actions really just? Indeed, the film invites us to ask many questions. And this is to its credit. Parker has said his hope for the film is “to make a healing mechanism for America.” And in causing viewers to ask good questions—questions of justice and ethics in the face of racial strife—Parker’s hopes may yet be realized.

About the Author: Seth Little
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