For over a hundred years, “The Birth of a Nation” has been a reminder of a film that chronicled the Civil War and following era but glorified the KKK in the process. But the release of Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” in 2016 challenges that legacy with its focus on Nathaniel Turner. Parker, the director, producer, writer and star of the movie, reclaims the phrase, and in doing so, challenges the common view of history.
The film chronicles Turner’s life, marking the factors that pushed him from a preaching, peaceful slave to the leader of a slave rebellion that some argue helped cause the Civil War. As a literate slave on a relatively peaceful plantation, Turner has influence because of his literacy and preaching abilities. These skills expose him to other plantations, as his owner makes him a traveling preacher to earn money, where he sees a wider range of the horrors of slavery. The film does not shy from showing the brutalities others endured; one scene focuses closely as a slave has his teeth broken out and is then force-fed.
Turner’s beliefs shift as the film progresses, and this shift forces him to question his view of religion. To his credit, Parker portrays this subtly; his face a guide to his internal conflict. He changes from someone who preaches obedience and love to someone who believes in the necessity of violence to obtain freedom. His shift also raises one of the central questions of the movie: how long can one preach peace and love towards one’s oppressors?
As is to be expected, Turner becomes the utmost focus of this movie. From its start this focus is evident, when he is introduced to a group of elders who proclaim he will be a prophet. This focus detracts somewhat from fully fleshing out the rest of the cast. Turner’s master is probably the most well-rounded side character, as his journey from a “kind” slavemaster to a cruel, powerful figure is set as parallel to Turner’s journey. Others, like his wife, are mostly props to move the story forward; pivotal moments that contribute to Turner’s growth are the only illustrations of the supporting character’s personalities.
Religion features heavily in this film, and, in moments, the religious imagery becomes heavy-handed. Many important discussions happen in front of the church or other Christian symbols. When Turner is left on the whipping post, he stands as a Christ-like figure. All of this is further emphasized by his occasional visions of angels and demons, which were reported by Turner before his death to his white attorney in real life. The ending is similarly done, packing an emotional punch with beautifully shot scenes and well-chosen music.
A review of the movie would be incomplete without a discussion of rape. In college, Parker, and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, were accused of sexual assault by a female classmate. Parker was charged, tried and acquitted, while Celestin, was convicted and was imprisoned, although the conviction was later overturned.
In the film, the rape of Turner’s wife by a group of white men is one of the main reasons for his rebellion. More interestingly, this rape did not occur in history. While the raping of slave women did occur by white men, to make this rape a pivotal moment in the movie does call up questions regarding Parker and Celestin.
The scene also continues the movie’s problematic portrayal of passive black women, who are shown as meekly accepting their enslavement, although historical fact suggests the women involved in Turner’s life, as well as black slave women in general, did rebel. The other major female slave in the movie, Esther, played by Gabrielle Union, does not speak during the film. By portraying black women as passive and needing rescue, the film perpetuates stereotypes about gender and race.
The brutality of the rape, and several other events, culminate in the rebellion. This event, however, features little in the film. Most of the movie is dedicated to how Turner got to that point, leaving the action-packed rebellion feeling a little rushed. Doing so prevents the movie from becoming just another action movie focused on vigilantism and the feeling of justice being served. Instead, the movie brings up questions about the morality of such vigilante justice and how long an oppressed people should, or can, have empathy for their oppressors.
“The Birth of a Nation” creates a mythos around Nathaniel Turner. Parker’s devotion to the story, and love of the man, is clear as he crafts a story around a controversial figure whose history is not entirely clear. Some of the events of the movie, such as the rape of Turner’s wife or details of his rebellion and capture, were altered in what seems like an attempt to make Turner an even more heroic and vigilante figure.
In an interview, Parker told CBS that “there’s never been a film that was 100 percent historically accurate.” His belief in this statement is especially evident at the conclusion of the film, as many of the details of the rebellion, including its betrayal by a member and who Turner killed, were fabricated. This does not necessarily detract from the movie, as generally few are aware of his story, but knowing the actual history does weaken some of the god-like aspects Parker gives Turner in the movie. After learning the actual history of the rebellion, some viewers might feel slighted by the changes.