Nate Parker wrote, directed and stars in The Birth of a Nation, a well written, directed and powerfully acted film that depicts the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion. Nat Turner was born into slavery in Virginia and after learning to read the Bible and preach, primarily to other slaves, felt called by God to lead a violent uprising against slave owners and other white people. Turner believed this would be the catalyst for a rebellion of slaves throughout the South and the ending the horrific institution. The Birth of a Nation is also one of the most important films of the year. Following the 2013 Oscar winning film for best picture 12 Years A Slave, another historically based film that addressed and depicted slavery in the United States, The Birth of A Nation allows viewers to experience, if only in the slightest way, the utter horror and indignity of the evil institution. Unlike 12 Years, there is no reunion or anything approaching a happy ending.
The Nat Turner rebellion lasted 48 hours and resulted in the deaths of between 55 and 65 slave owners, their families, and others in August of 1831. Though the rebellion only lasted 48 hours, it led to panic on the part of slave owners and white citizens throughout the south. In retaliation for the killings, southern militias and mobs killed over 200 slaves in addition to those who participated in the rebellion. Nat Turner was able to elude capture for 2 months before he was finally caught and hung. The rebellion also resulted in greater restrictions on slaves and free blacks including prohibiting education, the ability to assemble, and the possession of firearms.
As important as the film is in instilling awareness of the history and horrific reality of slavery, I cannot recall a time when I have felt as much ambivalence after watching a film. Following the screening of the film, the distributor asked for comments from press and bloggers. As one who was there to watch and review the film from a faith perspective, the first thought I had was the shortest verse in The Bible, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35)
Watching the film, one feels rage at the brutally cruel and inhuman treatment inflicted on persons. Also, as a United Methodist pastor, I felt anger and rage at toward the clergyman who sought to profit from slavery, specifically from assisting Nat Turner’s owner in leasing him out to other slave owners to preach compliance to and instill the fear of God into, their slaves. It is no secret that Scripture has long been used to justify unrighteous actions of persons and nations toward others. And, although I have known most southern Churches or denominations, including Methodism, allowed or endorsed slavery, seeing the impact such support had on the enslaved individuals, disturbs the soul in addition to informing the mind. That clergy and others so distorted and misused the Gospel of Christ for such gain, or whatever reason, deepens even further the sadness and anger.
After viewing, I tried not to judge the character of Turner as presented in the film. Though I believe he was wrong to kill the slave owners, their families, and others, and in doing so went against the teaching and life example of Christ, I cannot say that I would not resort to similar violence were I in the same circumstance. After exposure to such horror and indignity, and anger, a desire for vengeance can take over even the strongest resolve to resist violence and retaliation. Yet, the killings of the slave owners and others, even as they oppressed and enslaved fellow children of God, saddened Christ as did the enslavement and inhumane treatment of other humans by those same slave owners.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught followers to resist the natural human urge to seek revenge or strike out against even one’s enemies or oppressors. Not only is such human instinct contrary to the way of the Kingdom of God, but it also destroys the one seeking revenge. Forgiveness is not only, or even primarily, for the perpetrator of an offense, it is the first and foremost instrument of healing for the victim.
Parker has stated that he chose to title the film The Birth of A Nation as a way to redress the false, racist presentation of African Americans, and the righteously heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan by D.W. Griffith in his technically groundbreaking, 1915 film The Birth of A Nation. While such presentations are in need of correction, Parker ironically follows in the footsteps of Griffith in misrepresentation; in this case, the teachings of Jesus and the expectations of discipleship. Parker has talked openly about his faith in Christ and his identity as a Christian. He has also stated he considers Nat Turner to be a hero for being the spark that would culminate in, through the Civil War and the ending of slavery, the birth of a new nation.
As stated earlier it is hard to condemn Turner for turning to violence in the face of such oppressive and brutal treatment put upon him, his family, and millions of other slaves. It misrepresents, however, the teachings of Christ and is contrary to the call of discipleship to countenance Turner’s actions, even against his oppressors. The call of Jesus to Nate Parker, myself, and all disciples is not to seek or celebrate the birth of a new nation through violence or any other means. It is instead to seek through Christ-like living, the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom, where revenge has no place and one has access only by the grace and forgiveness of God.
Even in the midst of the ambiguity residing within the historically based story, and the opinions of Nate Parker, The Birth of A Nation is an important film to watch because of the insight into the reality of the institution of slavery and what it was to be enslaved. While it is important to know and remember history, it is even more important to understand history. Experiencing in even the mildest way the horror of slavery is vital to understanding the profound impact it had and still has on this nation, and prevent even wisps of such thinking and actions from rekindling.
The Birth of a Nation is rated R for violent content and brief nudity.
In writing the review of the film, I chose not to address in the body of the review the controversy regarding Nate Parker and his acquittal of a charge of sexual assault in 1999 while he was a student at Penn State. Click link for coverage of the incident, trial, and aftermath.