The Birth of a Nation
"Live as people who are free," Peter tells us. "For you were called to freedom, brothers," Paul exhorts. "And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free," Jesus says.
Freedom—spiritual freedom—is accessible for all, the Bible says. And as such, Nat Turner is free.
Nat learned to read when he was a boy, and his favorite book—his only book—is the Bible. He can quote chapter and verse wholesale. Every word is sacred to him, every passage precious. He preaches Sunday mornings—his master's stable a makeshift church, his owner's horses the choir. Yes, Nat's soul is free; free indeed.
His body, however, remains the property of Samuel Turner.
Nat's been a slave all of his life, spending most of it in the Turner's sprawling cotton fields. But even so, Nat has much to be thankful for. Samuel isn't overtly cruel—as long as he's sober, at least. Nat has a wife and daughter. He even gets to see them when his wife's owner comes to visit. That Nat can read is a miracle itself, and the fact that he can use his knowledge and faith comfort his fellow slaves, that's a blessing, too.
Others don't have it so good. A drought is crushing Southampton County, Va. Owners can't afford to feed their slaves, so sometimes they don't. Slaves are growing restless, and beatings only go so far. The plantation owners cast their eyes on Samuel Turner's docile workforce and wonder, What does he have that we don't?
Nat Turner, that's what. Soon, Samuel's taking Nat around the county, earning good coin on Nat's power of persuasion. Give them a word about submission, the owners tell Nat. Discipline. Tell them that freedom's for the next world, not this one.
Nat does as he's told. But as he preaches, he sees dirty bandages covering other slaves' latest beatings. He hears their groans and coughs. He watches as an overseer takes a hammer and chisel and knocks out a slave's teeth one by one, then forces a funnel down the slave's throat to force-feed him with gruel.
Who rises up for Me against the wicked? Psalm 94 shouts. Who stands up for Me against evildoers?
Nat Turner knows that the Lord says, "Vengeance is Mine." He knows that those who live by the sword die by it, too. But he cannot stand aside. He can no longer square the paradox of a free soul and an enslaved body. God, he believes, is calling him. God, he believes, is asking him to sweep aside these Virginian Amalekites and to start new. Start fresh. Start free.
The Birth of a Nation dramatizes the real-life slave revolt of Nat Turner. It was a 48-hour onslaught that left more than 60 white slaveholders dead, while the ensuing retribution resulted in in the deaths of more than 200 black men, women and children—some of who were already free, and many of whom weren't involved in the rebellion at all. That's a pretty problematic narrative to draw from, and the positives we find here are interwoven within that violent story's inherent complexity.
In the movie, Nat Turner is a good man who consistently wants to do the right thing. He encourages Samuel to buy a slave woman named Cherry, knowing that the Turners will be far more humane than the other lecherous souls bidding on her. He picks up a dropped toy and tries to give it to a little white boy and his mother, only to be viciously beaten by the boy's father for his kindness. When Samuel asks for a slave woman—the wife of another slave—to be brought to the house to satisfy one of his guests, Nat pleads with his master to do otherwise, convinced that Samuel is a good man at heart.
Nat's breaking point comes when he's asked to baptize a white man—a man with such a terrible past that no church in the county would accept him. Nat believes it's his sacred duty to help usher this sinner into God's kingdom, even though he knows that his master, Samuel, may not approve. "To stand between the Lord and His people is a dangerous place to be," he says.
The consequences for Nat are severe. The movie suggests that there's no real way to mollify such an ugly, immoral system while working within that system—not when those most affected have no legal rights and thus no legal recourse. And while we can't condone the choices that Nat later makes, the movie effectively presses this provocative question upon us: What would we do in Nat's shoes?
There are others, both black and white, who show kindness. Nat's mother nurses Cherry back to health and sanity. Elizabeth Turner, matriarch of the Turner plantation, ushers Nat into her home and educates him. Samuel comes to his defense several times before booze and societal pressures twist him. And slaves help each other, sometimes at great risk to themselves.
The movie opens with a mysterious gathering that perhaps recalls earlier, pagan ceremonies in Africa. An elder talks about the "holy words of our ancestors" and proclaims the child Nat, who bares three strange marks on his chest (representing wisdom, courage and vision, we're told) a "prophet."
That ceremony aside, Nat is raised Christian, and he makes that evident almost every moment he's on screen. As a child, he's taken to a white church service where he reads Scripture to the audience. As an adult, Nat preaches often. He goes toe-to-toe with a white minister, the two spitting Bible verses at each other to support their interpretations of Scripture. Nat and others sing hymns and spirituals.
When Nat eventually makes the decision to resist, he justifies that choice by name-dropping biblical figures who also fought. He reminds someone that God is not only a God of grace and forgiveness, but a "God of wrath." He says the revolt won't begin until he receives a sign from God. When he sees a solar eclipse, Nat interprets that as the asked-for sign. Cherry reminds Nat that he once said people who live by the sword will perish by it, too. But later, she tells Nat, "If the Lord's called you to fight, you fight. You fight for me. For [your daughter]. You fight for us all."
But Nat's oppressors are Christians, too. Elizabeth is responsible for Nat's spiritual passion, allowing him to read the Bible and telling him it's "the best book ever written." The Turner family motto is "family, faith and tradition." A stained glass window featuring a huge cross graces the family home. And Samuel is regularly visited by Reverend Walthall—an unsavory man of the cloth who encourages Samuel to take Nat out to preach to other plantations.
When a rich man rapes a slave woman, the woman's husband asks Nat where God is.
Nat and Cherry marry. That night, we see the two in their shack by candlelight, both nude and fully visible from the waist up. We also see other women's exposed breasts during a secret ceremony.
Most of the film's sexual allusions depict or imply violence-tinged, nonconsensual contact and rape. When Nat first sees Cherry, she's on the auction block. An auctioneer tears her dress off her shoulders to reveal her body. (We only see her shoulders, but the men shopping for slaves leer, and the camera zooms in on the crotch of one, implying that he's aroused.)
Another woman—the wife of a fellow slave—is forced to go into Samuel's house to sleep with one of his guests. (The man makes ribald references to "black meat.") When she comes out again, she's weeping, falling into her husband's arms. During the rebellion, a little girl is pulled from the bed of a slave overseer and carried away. References are made to "wenches"—sex slaves, it would seem—being locked in someone's cellar.
After Cherry and Nat are married, Cherry is surrounded by a handful of white men, one saying that if she doesn't have a pass, she'll have to show him "something else." The next time we see her, she's recovering in bed, her face so bruised and swollen she's barely recognizable as a person, much less Nat's wife.
The violence we see preceding Nat's rebellion is deeply unsettling. The scene in which an overseer calmly knocks the teeth (or parts of teeth) out of a slave is particularly disturbing: His mouth becomes a mass of mush made of tooth remnants, blood and gruel, all of which drain down the man's face and onto his chest. He and another slave are chained in a barn, their mouths muzzled with metal. We hear whips crack as slaves cower at the sound. We watch as Nat himself gets beaten to the point of death. The resulting wounds are stitched by his grandmother—an operation that looks incredibly painful, but Nat's either unconscious or too exhausted to move. He's beaten elsewhere, too, and gets smacked in the face with a rifle butt.
The rebellion itself is no less bloody. Most of the killings are done via hatchet or club. One man is hacked in the chest and crawls out of his room, trailing a thick swath of blood behind before bleeding his last by the stairs. Another has his head hacked off with repeated hatchet blows (off camera, though the head is hoisted up for view). Still another has his head pounded with a mallet (this one on camera). Dozens upon dozens of people, both white and black, are shot or stabbed to death. One such victim has a nine-inch piece of wood pulled from his neck.
People die by hanging. In one case we see a man die at the end of the rope. Bodies—some of them children—swing from trees. One man has the top of his head blown off. Another corpse left by the road depicts a dead slave, his head crushed. Slaves are shown with bandaged wounds. One slave up for auction is missing both his arms. Blood from whip wounds seeps through work clothes. Someone coughs up blood. It's suggested that Cherry's been physically abused in the past; she attacks Nat when he first comes near her.
Crude or Profane Language
At least 20 uses of "n-gger." Otherwise, profanity is fairly sparse, with one use each of "b--ch" and "b--tard" and four of "h---." We hear "g--d--n" five times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Samuel increasingly turns to alcohol. He swigs whiskey and asks for brandy from neighbors. His nightstand is full of empty bottles. Other well-to-do whites drink and, sometimes, get drunk. The fact that the Rev. Walthall drinks so often is a sign, the movie suggests, of the man's own hypocrisy.
Other Negative Elements
Nat vomits after he kills a man.
More than 100 years ago, another movie called The Birth of a Nation was released. It was a revolutionary work for its time—a blockbuster that introduced new cinematic storytelling techniques, making it arguably the most influential movie ever made. It was also horrifically racist: Members of the KKK were the good guys.
A century later, Nate Parker—writer, director, producer and star of the latest Birth of a Nation—co-opted the name for a much different sort of movie, but one that has also been embroiled in its own brand of controversy. Allegations that Parker raped a woman 17 years ago resurfaced earlier this year, and suddenly this seemingly surefire Oscar nominee was damaged goods. Pundits are asking, somewhat breathlessly, Can the movie be a hit? Can it be nominated for Best Picture? Can it win?
But the question we have to ask ourselves here is a different one: All the backstory and outside drama aside, our question is this: Is it worth watching?
You could argue that given its generous use of Scripture and its explicitly religious underpinnings, Birth of a Nation is one of the best-crafted Christian movies in recent history. Not since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has a "faith based" story—and there's no question that this is, by definition, a faith-based story—had such narrative pop. The Birth of a Nation is a powerful, convicting tale.
But it's steeped in horrific displays of violence. And it wallows in human suffering and uses theology to, essentially, justify wholesale butchery.
Obviously the issue of slavery—and the lack of other options for said slaves—adds a deep layer of complexity to the whole affair. But as much as the movie wants us to see Nat as a hero, I have a difficult time fully doing so. "Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord" (Romans 12:19, KJV).
In this context, that's the verse my brain just can't escape.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Nate Parker as Nat Turner; Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner; Aja Naomi King as Cherry; Mark Boone Junior as Reverend Walthall; Coleman Domingo as Hark; Aunjanue Ellis as Nancy Turner; Dwight henry as Isaac Turner; Esther Scott as Bridget Turner; Jackie Earle Haley as Raymond Cobb; Roger Guenveur Smith as Isaiah; Gabrielle Union as Esther
Nate Parker ( )
20th Century Fox
October 7, 2016
January 10, 2017