To See or not To See?: Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”

To See or not To See?: Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is the latest in a wave of television and movie offerings that seek to share parts of the African-American story to a wider audience. The Roots reboot, Underground; 12 Years a Slave; and Selma remind us—and the world—of the “stony road we trod.” They are even more relevant in the wake of the continued violence being perpetrated against Black bodies and the Black Lives Matter movement. When it was first announced, The Birth of a Nation was greeted with fervent expectations. After a month at the United States box office, it has grossly underperformed and has met with mixed reviews from critics. Additionally, controversy swirled around Parker and his responses to allegations of his involvement in a rape committed during his collegiate years. What was supposed to be a triumphant homage to Nat Turner has turned into a lightning rod for debates from cinematography to rape culture.

Turner’s story is one that continues to inspire, uplift, and haunt. Born a slave in Virginia, he learned to read and became an acclaimed slave preacher. His mother inspired and encouraged her son in his faith. On August 21, 1833, it was divine inspiration through his deep faith that motivated him to mount the largest slave rebellions in United States history, resulting in the death of approximately 60 whites and as many as 200 Blacks (many of whom were innocent). It also led to his eventual hanging.

The films treatment of slavery and religion stand out. Parker captures the brutality of slavery and the repeated violence against and disregard for the lives of African-Americans through some of the most vivid portrayals ever seen on the silver screen. The power of religion is also shown as Turner’s preaching talents sold to slave owners. I cringed when I heard the sermons from Ephesians 6:5 and the curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27). Yet, the liberating power of Christ could not be contained as he led a white laborer to conversion.

The movie’s liberties with Turner’s story are problematic. There is no evidence that Turner’s wife was raped or that a rape prompted the rebellion. The divine inspiration that motivated Turner is shown as an afterthought to justify rage in the wake of these incidents. In his biography, Turner refers to his mother as a far more assertive and influential character than her portrayal in the movie. Most notable is the climactic shootout in Jerusalem. Turner’s force never made it to the armory though they did fight an organized militia force in pitched battle.  Also, some of the dialogue did not seem appropriate with the period and the movie’s pacing at times seemed hurried and uneven.

The Birth of a Nation is a tough film to watch and I was conflicted about even seeing it. I am deeply troubled by Parker’s reaction to the questions around the alleged rape during his collegiate years. Rape culture is very real and while his response may have not raised flags in 1998, we live in a different time. Given the role that this rape plays in the film, his response is even more problematic. Nevertheless, at what point does a person’s character (or sin) overshadow their positive contributions? This question is continually salient as we have seen several well-respected public figures fall from grace in recent months. I chose to see the film and am glad I did. Likewise, I respect those who did not because of their concerns about Parker. Turner’s story deserves to be told and in spite of personal flaws and questionable cinematographic choices, Parker has shone a spotlight on a hero well overdue for recognition.

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2 Comments

  1. Hello! My name is Delores, I am 82 years of age. I can watch movies like “The Birth of a Nation and not to become angry because I realize that the people of that era didn’t really know better or want to know better. The movie showed a part of american history that those of the 20th and 21st century have no knowledge of what our forefathers had to endure for them to be able to live in this world today. Is it perfect? No and it will never be as long as man still does not have a change of heart. I felt the pain and the anger of Turner. I wish more of people could have seen it with an open mind.

    • I think every Black person in this country should go see “Birth of a Nation”!!! While it may not capture every detail with precision accuracy it certainly recaptures and shares a historical reality that needs to become a part of the political, educational and cultural conversations of this country. Without that we cannot move forward. Nate Parker was never charged with a crime and the young man who was, was exonerated by a court of law. Why should the value of their creativity be diminished for acts, in the eyes of the law, they did not commit? This is a Black Man who has been Blessed with phenomena skills and talents and we as a people should be uplifting and advancing him. We must become critical thinkers and stop allowing ourselves to be pitted against each other. We are physically free! Let us begin to think and act like a people out of bondage. Voices from the pulpit are ever so critical, as so many of us consider them vehicles of God.

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