Birth of a Nation, The (United States, 2016)October 06, 2016
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent movie, The Birth of a Nation, remains one of the most controversial epics ever committed to film. The bold, innovative techniques employed by the director are offset by a repugnantly racist second half that depicts many African Americans in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era as sub-human and elevates the Ku Klux Klan to heroic status. By using the same title, The Birth of a Nation, for his radically different 2016 feature, Nate Parker has illustrated a diametrically opposite interpretation. The two movies have nothing in common save the title and its intentional re-use here establishes this production as a thematic rebuttal to the one made a century ago.
The Birth of a Nation transpires approximately 40 years prior to the Griffith one. Slavery is a flourishing industry in the South - as much of an economic necessity as it is a moral conundrum. Slave owners find refuge in Bible verses that seem to endorse the concept of slavery. One of the movie’s themes is that religion, Carl Marx’s opium of the people, can be a powerful tool for motivating almost any act - be it silent subservience or violent aggression. The Word of God is used not only to validate slavery but to justify a bloody uprising against Plantation owners and their families.
At the heart of The Birth of a Nation is Nat Turner’s Rebellion, a slave revolt that took place in Southampton County, Virginia during August 1831. Casualties were high - between 55 and 65 whites killed and at least three times as many African Americans lawfully hanged and/or lynched in the aftermath. The depiction of the rebellion comprises the movie’s final third. The rest of The Birth of the Nation chronicles Turner’s life before he started his murderous rampage.
Parker’s account reminds us that movies, like history, are all about perspective. In The Birth of a Nation, Turner (played by the director) is presented as a humble, decent human being - a preacher who seeks to comfort other slaves but who becomes increasingly disillusioned about how his oratorical skills are being used to quell rebellious impulses. When he turns against the local populace of landed whites, it is a moment of justifiable retribution. Another movie, however, might weigh events differently. The power of cinema lies in Parker’s ability to convince us that Nat Turner’s Rebellion isn’t a mindless massacre of innocents but a legitimate and righteous retaliation against a cavalcade of inhuman and vile acts.
The Birth of a Nation’s early scenes provide a snapshot of the day-to-day activities on a cotton plantation during the 1820s. The white owners are presented as decent folk who care about the well-being of their slaves. As a child, Nat is brought into the house by Mrs. Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) to learn to read and write. He plays hide-and-seek with the plantation owner’s only son, Samuel. Skipping ahead a decade, Samuel (now played by Armie Hammer) is now the master of the land and Nat has become a preacher. The relationship between the two childhood friends is closer than that of many owners and slaves, but the division is evident. Nevertheless, Samuel allows Nat a fair amount of freedom, including marriage to Cherry (Aja Naomi King), a girl who lives and works on a nearby plantation. But Samuel has a multitude of problems - he’s deep in debt, lacks the backbone to stand up to those with less charitable views than his, and is too fond of alcohol. The Witch’s Brew concocted from these flaws results in an unforgivable act of “discipline” that poisons his relationship with Nat and results in the Rebellion.
When I say that Parker is a master manipulator, that’s meant as a compliment of the highest order. He gets us into this story and puts us unequivocally behind Nat. The Birth of a Nation portrays the institution of slavery as rotten and degenerate but its practitioners aren’t painted with black-and-white brushstrokes. The people are nuanced even if the circumstances aren’t. Nevertheless, when it comes to the rebellion, we cheer on Nat’s actions, even though they include murder. The victims are collateral damage in an explosion against a state of existence that would collapse in a far bloodier conflagration 40 years in the future.
The Birth of a Nation offers an object lesson about how The Bible can be used to support virtually any position. A key scene provides a duel of sorts as Nat and a white preacher trade verses that say different things about slavery and servitude. Should slaves submit and obey their masters or rise up and throw off their yoke? For much of the film, Nat preaches restraint and obedience. It’s his creed. Toward the end, however, his is a less tolerant, more violent message. He hasn’t lost his faith, however; it has simply been transformed.
The Birth of a Nation is harrowing, compelling cinema - perhaps not as wrenching as 12 Years a Slave but not far removed. Although off-screen revelations about an event from Parker’s past may limit the movie’s awards expectations, they change nothing about the strength of the story, the themes, or the acting. The film stands tall on its own merits and deserves to be seen irrespective of the perceived failings of its author.
Birth of a Nation, The (United States, 2016)
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley
Screenplay: Nate Parker, based on a story by Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin
Cinematography: Elliot Davis
Music: Henry Jackman
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight