I saw Ava DuVernay’s mass-incarceration documentary 13th the day after watching The Birth of a Nation. At the end of DuVernay’s powerful statement on race and imprisonment, one interview subject raises a common question we ask today: “How could people have tolerated slavery?” In other words, we would have stopped it, right? White people would have spoken out and risen up if we lived back then?
Nate Parker, who directs, produces, writes, and stars in The Birth of a Nation, centers his directorial debut on the men who did rise up. It’s the history of Nat Turner, the devout preacher who led a 48-hour insurrection against local enslavers in 1831 Virginia. And it’s a hard movie to watch for several reasons. I decided to buy a ticket and see it, though I sympathize with those boycotting on account of Parker’s sexual-assault history and inadequate media responses today. On top of that, the movie does not shy from the horrifying (and expected) imagery of slavery: slave beatings, lynchings, a female character’s rape by a rich white man.
Then there’s Nat Turner’s violent uprising itself. The movie builds over nearly two hours to the moment Nat chooses to revolt, recruiting enslaved men across the county to join him. Along the way, Parker contrasts Nat’s slavehood with that of other black men and women at other plantations. His owner Samuel Turner seems kinder than most—and Turner’s mother taught him to read and preach as a young child, developing a reputation in the county as the black preacher who can pacify other owners’ slaves. Armie Hammer grasps Turner’s contradictory nature well, his mask of kindness fading sharply when Nat disobeys him. Instead of pacifying, Nat preaching the word of the Lord inspires other men to take up arms and join him in action.
The uprising is black against white, slave against owner, free against oppressed. It is biblical in its fervor, righteous in its violence—one of the original race riots in a history of protest. And the movie, to its credit, doesn’t really condone or pass judgment on the rebellion. But oddly, the rebellion barely gets any screen time. There’s no real narrative arc to get there, and it’s over quickly. Is Parker trying to make Nat more sympathetic by minimizing his retaliation? He takes an axe to his owner, for instance, but that violent act is handled off-screen. Does he mean to censor the historical record? At the end of the movie, Nat faces his execution to sweeping strings and soaring camerawork; I’ve seen (accurate) comparisons to Braveheart. The ending is hagiography, Nat Turner a martyred hero.
There are beautifully shot moments, courtesy of cinematographer Elliot Davis: the sweetness of Nat’s attraction to fellow slave Cherry (a sadly underused Aja Naomi King) juxtaposed with leering, masturbating white men eyeing her on the auction block. The close-ups on Nat as an innocent young boy (an excellent Tony Espinoza), his large eyes absorbing the injustices around him.
I wondered what the five-year-old boy in front of me thought. He seemed unfazed after; maybe it was too much to take in. Did he see himself in the young Nat? Or the many unblinking children Parker films? Enslaved children who watch the horrors inflicted on their parents, who experienced even more rights stripped away from blacks after Turner’s uprising. Who grew up to see the Civil War, Reconstruction, the 13th amendment, the rise of white supremacists. These children even could have lived to see D.W. Griffith’s pro-Klan The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Nate Parker’s reclamation of that title is a mandate that the fight continues, though it falters capturing the essence of Nat Turner’s story.