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
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.