The Birth of a Nation


            OK, there is absolutely no way on God's green earth that you can even talk about this movie without the harrowing context of race relations in America today.  I think we could, first of all, agree that right now tensions are high because of a series of recent incidents, spread throughout the country, of police violence against blacks.  This has spawned both the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and revived the “Back the Blue” movement, which, theoretically, don't have to be opposed to one another, but realistically, they are perceived as such.  The results of innumerable surveys indicate a vast discrepancy in perception regarding racism in this country:  whites will overwhelmingly claim they're not racist, and blacks will overhwelmingly report personal experience with discrimnation.  In the midst of all this, we “ordinary citizens” find ourselves walking on eggshells around each other, perhaps going out of our way to be outwardly polite, which in itself reflects the inner turmoil so evident in the cultural atmosphere.

            And now comes the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” which is first of all an ironic title, because it was first used in a 1915 silent film which chronicled, apparently sympathetically, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan following The Civil War.  Nate Parker sells his film to Sundance for an unprecedented $17.5 million, but the additional irony is that a primary aspect of the film is the rape of the main character's wife, when Nate Parker himself had been accused, tried, and acquited of rape while a wrestler at Penn State (though his co-defendant was convicted).  Nate Parker has, understandably, continued to maintain his innocence (though we may never know the full story, since the victim committed suicide).

            In the 2016 version of “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker plays Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who led a brief rebellion in August of 1831.  The 48-hour uprising was responsible for the deaths of 60 whites (including women and children), but Nat Turner was captured, and hung along with his co-conspirators.  Officially, there was an approximately equal number of black executions, but then there were also angry white mobs that came after innocent blacks in retaliation, as well, as many as 200 more (the exact count is, predictably, not available).

            The movie appears to reflect the factual accuracy of Nat Turner's rebellion.  But though the rest of the biography of Nat Turner is less verifiable, Nate Parker's film indicates that Nat Turner was set aside as a young boy for a spiritual destiny.  He became literate, though that was not easy in the antebellum South.  There was apparently one white woman who showed him a kindness, and helped him learn to read and write.  The rest of the whites portrayed are completely despicable.  They not only own slaves, but they abuse them, cruelly berating them, harrassing them, and beating them unmercifully for no apparent reason, other than they could get away with it.  Rapes of young female slaves are common, not only by their masters but even arranged for their master's house guests.  Deprived of any shred of human dignity, the slaves who try to escape are hunted down and beaten even more severely as an example to others.  Nat Turner's “master,” Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), seems, at first, more enlightened, but in the end is just a pathetic drunk who's just as guilty as all the other whites.

            In the film, even Nat's sense of calling to the ministry is abused, as Nat is recruited as a preacher to other blacks in order to “calm down” the slaves on other plantations:  preaching particular parts of scripture, but conveniently leaving out other parts.  After Nat sees so much horrible treatment, and then himself receives a public whipping, after protesting about his wife being raped and beaten by vindictive white men, he'd finally had enough.  He encourages other slaves to take up farm implements with him, and kill their masters, gathering as many guns as they can while they do.  After the militia is called in, the rebellion has no chance to succeed, but the participants thought an important point was made.  In some circles, even today, Nat Turner is thought of as a martyr and a hero.

            No white, of course, is proud of the slavery era in this country.  It was gruesomely evil, and completely unconscionable.  And the South needed to lose The Civil War to end it, and Abraham Lincoln was right to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, before the war was actually won on the battlefield, because there's just no justifying the moral atrocity on economic or any other grounds. But it's still a very sobering experience today to watch the horrors of slavery on the big screen, no matter what your color or your politics.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What's your view of the state of race relations in America today?

2)                  How much of your viewpoint is affected by the historical context of slavery?

3)                  What can be done to improve race relations now?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association