Written and directed by Sundance Film Festival favorite Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation is a phenomenally powerful and intense film about the horrors of slavery. It is based on the true story of Nat Turner, a preacher and slave who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831. Without even watching a single frame, the movie makes a potent statement in its reappropriation of the title The Birth of a Nation, which is also an infamous 1915 movie that denigrated African Americans and praised the Ku Klux Klan. We first meet Nat, who is superbly played by Nate Parker, as a child who is taught to read the Bible from his master’s wife. Over the course of the film’s first half, he is a preacher who tries to uplift fellow slaves with a hopeful message. Eventually, he is used by his master to help other nearby slave owners appease their slaves by preaching a perverted message justifying slavery. The film undergoes a dramatic tonal shift after Nat’s wife is brutally raped by a group of white men. His preaching becomes much more aggressive, and he finally decides that something must be done to avenge himself and fellow slaves. He organizes a group of slaves in a full-blown revolt that would result in over 60 killings of slave masters and their family members. Nat’s turning point goes to the heart of the film’s message: is violence, including the deaths of some innocents, ever a justified response to such an evil practice as slavery? What really makes the movie stand out is its effective use of visceral imagery and symbolism. For instance, there is a brief shot of a piece of corn gushing red blood, likely to underscore the blood spilled on Southern plantations simply for profit. The film also begins and ends with dreamlike sequences depicting African spiritual ceremonies in which Nat and presumably his ancestors are in traditional garb and covered by what appears to be a warpaint. For me, the most powerful scene is when the camera slowly pulls out revealing dead black men, women, and even children hanging from a tree, while Nina Simone’s rendition of Strange Fruit plays in the background. That particular song is so evocative because it is a ballad about lynchings in the South and comparing blacks to strange fruit hanging from trees. Overall, I found it to be one of the best movies of the year and comprable to the 2013 Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave in its vivid portrayal of America’s greatest sin. Notwithstanding the controversial nature of the film’s violence and its filmmaker, it must stand on its own merits and be viewed as one of the more important films you will see in a long time.
Born in 1800 on a plantation in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat, along with his mother, were the slaves of Benjamin Turner until his death in 1810 after which his brother Samuel Turner became his master. As was the custom of taking an owner’s surname, he was known as Nat Turner and commonly called The Prophet by fellow slaves due to his fervent religiosity. He spent his entire life at the same Turner plantation, and there is some disputed evidence that he was married to a slave named Cherry. Claiming to have received a vision from God, Nat ultimately was able to recruit 70 slaves and freedmen to take part in a violent revolt against slave owners. In a period of 48 hours beginning on August 21, 1831, the group killed upwards of 65 white men, women, and children in a seemingly indiscriminate fashion, save for a few impoverished white farmers. He survived two months after the first skirmish and was eventually sentenced to death in November 1831. He was hung on November 11, 1831 in Jerusalem, Virginia and his body was flayed, beheaded, and quartered in order to set an example. In the uprising’s aftermath, over 200 blacks were killed in retaliation and 45 of his cohorts were tried in court. Although it would set the stage for the eventual freedom of slaves after the Civil War, the rights of slaves and freedmen were drastically curtailed in response to the violent slave rebellion.