The Birth of a Nation
directed by Nate Parker
I try to handle it without violence being involved/But sometimes that's the only way these problems are solved
Well run Red run because he's got your gun/And he's aiming it at your head
I am finding it hard to accept the apparent rebuff at the box office of “The Birth of a Nation,” particularly after seeing the film last weekend. It is an exceptional piece of artistry and a vital portrait of our American experience in trying to live up to ideals we say we have. No one should miss it — no one who respects our country and its long struggle to define itself. I am sorry about the conflict with Nate Parker’s past, but let’s try for some honesty here. If you want to make a list of the directors and actors who have rather public indiscretions, and who have in some cases been acquitted of them, start counting. What troubles me is this: Are we being particular here with this extraordinary film because it’s about the racist curse we are struggling to erase from our country and its director is black? The curse is there. Go look at it. Do we have the courage to do that? It’s a fine work.-Hal Holbrook
The Birth of a Nation (BOAN) was probably not an Oscar winning film considering all the competition it was up against. It has a tour de force incarnation by first time director Nate Parker as Nat Turner, leader of the most successful slave revolt in American history, but everyone else virtually fades into the background insofar as memorable performances go. BOAN should have done more to depict just how frightened whites were of the spectre of black revolt. White slaveholders throughout America were worried about the recent successful Haitian revolution. Slaveholders knew what they were doing was wrong. Some of the more perceptive, including one Thomas Jefferson, knew that there would be a reckoning some day. But addicted both to free labor and the venomous ideology of white supremacy which justified black enslavement, whites found it impossible to free slaves and outlaw slavery, even if they wanted to, which most of them assuredly did not. Every fact or argument was used to justify slavery, no matter how contradictory. Was a black person stupid or cowardly? Well that just showed that slavery was his or her natural state of affairs. Was a black person brave or intelligent? Well then by God you had better break their body and spirit to show to everyone else that no n***** would ever be equal to a white person. BOAN probably needed a more detailed white villain to show the utter desperation in which enslaved Africans found themselves.
It's ironic that a land which saw about 250 years of racial slavery and another 100+ years of legalized segregation and virtual non-citizenship for Blacks has difficulty making films about these experiences, which were central to American identity. Hollywood has no problem churning out film after film about the Holocaust, something which for all its horror, did not take place on American shores. Imagine that the German film industry made multiple films about American slavery or the Native American genocide while mostly ignoring Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. It would be obvious that Germans were avoiding something probably because of a guilty conscience. People can watch Braveheart, which touches many of the same issues as BOAN, and find the humanity in the uprising of the Scots, bloody and brutal though it was. That recognition of humanity is often not granted to black heroes. Parker, who wrote the film as well as directed it, deserves credit for delving into the Original Sin of the American psyche. I don't hold to many conspiracy theories. But it's interesting that for this film we suddenly learned about Parker's long past legal problems and his wife's race. BOAN was commercially hobbled from those "controversies" as well as its subject matter and never had a chance in theaters. I think BOAN was only in my local theater for two weeks, if that. This was a hard movie to watch if only because all the horrors were only too real.
When he is a young boy, adults mark Nat Turner as special in secret African religious ceremonies which the slaves keep at night. They believe that Nat will be some sort of redeemer. One of BOAN's themes is that for good and bad the slaves need something supernatural in which to believe because their daily lives are literal hell on earth. The only sense of freedom comes from death. That's probably why so many early blues/gospel/spiritual songs seem positively giddy about death. Death was a release. Nat's father steals food to try to feed his family. He runs away. The local paddyroller Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) looks for Nat's father in vain. He threatens young Nat in an obvious foreshadowing of later actions.
Nat has grown up with relatively liberal "owners". As a child he played with his future master Sam Turner (Armie Hammer). Sam's mother Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), upon discovering that Nat has interest in reading, decides to teach him to read the Bible. Elizabeth doesn't like and isn't often aware of slavery's brutality, but she's no abolitionist. If she reflects on things at all she feels that people should be nice to each other. She especially emphasizes Biblical verses that exhort slaves to obey their masters or which talk of equality in the afterlife. For Elizabeth Nat is like a valued and well trained pet. He's special. For his part, once he is the plantation master, Sam doesn't allow anyone else to discipline "his" slaves. Sam prefers that slaves do what he asks without excessive compulsion. But he doesn't always get what he wants.
As an adult, having run into some hard times financially, Sam rents Nat out to preach to the slaves of fellow whites. Sam and his slave owner compadres hope that Nat can use religion to ensure that their slaves are compliant, obedient and fearful. Sam and company don't give a damn about religion. They're just lazy and, with the exception of the genuine sadists among them, want obedient slaves without having to burn them, whip them or knock out their teeth. But they'll do all that and more if needs must. BOAN depicts the exact level to which whites went to destroy any sense of humanity slaves might have had. Looking a white person in the eye, forgetting to add sir or ma'am to your address to a white person, getting too close to a white woman, raising your voice to a white person, defending yourself from a white person, contradicting anything a white person said, etc. could all make you an immediate candidate for a beating or much worse. This was normal. Even whites who did not own slaves were still ardent defenders of white supremacy. Nat finds that though he thought of Sam as friendly, Sam is not friendly. Increasingly, Nat finds it difficult to tell his fellow slaves to be obedient and hopeful in the face of the atrocities they suffer. Nat feels hypocritical and stupid. Parker's acting and camera choices are really critical here.
It is paradoxical to use religions as a tool of enslavement. It is even more ridiculous for a black man to use religion to help make better slaves of other black men, women and children. And yet there's the ugly truth that by being complicit in their own enslavement, blacks might be able to avoid worse abuse. But accepting your lot as a slave just leads to more self-hatred. And because Nat is obviously a slave himself and subject to the caprice of whites, the other slaves hate him for selling hope even as they seemingly buy it. All of these thoughts flitter unspoken across the face and eyes of Nat and the slaves to whom Nat has come to preach. There's a lot of code switching.
Things come to a head after the gang rape (fortunately this is depicted offscreen) of Nat's wife Cherry (Aja King) and the rape of another enslaved woman Esther (Gabrielle Union). When Nat baptises a white man the local whites, including Sam, decide that Nat needs to be taken down a notch. With extreme prejudice. The fact that Nat finally reveals that he knows the Bible better than the white preacher (Mark Boone Junior) merely fuels Sam's fury. But all Sam's abuse does is strip away Nat's illusions, not his dignity or resolve.
Some people say that violence never solves anything and is always bad. Those people are, even if well meaning, utterly wrong. Sometimes (Civil War, WW2) violence really does solve the problem. Black Americans would not be citizens today without violence. More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other war. It is true that there is always a cost to violence, something which is deftly explained by the pragmatic house slave Isaiah (Roger Guenveur Smith). Smith takes a role which might have been thanklessly stereotypical and fills it with decency, realism and quiet desperation. He should have had even more to do with this role. Looking back it's easy to talk about what we would have done. If you grew up white in a society that found slave owning to be normal and natural would you really oppose that and likely lose all your friends and family? If you grew up as a black slave, saw your parents beaten and mutilated, and knew you were outnumbered by people with guns would you have the guts to rebel? These are sobering questions. To fight is to lose but not to fight is also to lose. The film received mindless criticism from some feminist quarters for making rape one of the catalysts for the rebellion. This critique is silly. Rape is a horrible crime second only to murder in its vileness. It was also occasionally committed specifically to terrorize the entire black community, enslaved or free. The film shows the impact of such crimes not just on the women directly impacted but on their husbands and brothers. That's human nature. The film also shows the impact of men being tortured or killed upon their mothers and wives. Slavery was not something that only impacted one gender. American enslavement perverted marriage and reproduction for its own malign purpose.
The film's cinematography is suitably spooky and outre. Much of this is taken from some of the alleged statements which Nat Turner made. Nat had visions, much like the Biblical prophets. And it was these visions, as much as the brutality and hopelessness he experienced, which led him to act. This is an enormously compelling film. It took me a while to get through it. This film is not perfect. But it's odd to me that often the black community says it wants movies about black heroes but then refuses to support them. It is somehow fittingly ironic and wholly American that this film, which shares a title with the odious Klan positive 1915 D.W.Griffith film, died a quick death at the box office while the 1915 film was an enormously successful movie which was and is considered a classic.