The Importance of “The Birth of a Nation” (Review)

Oct 7, 2016

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The Birth of a Nation

Fox Searchlight Productions

Directed by: Nate Parker
Produced by: Nate Parker, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert, Preston L. Holmes
Screenplay by: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union

 

Warning spoilers will follow!

I will try to separate the film from the director Nate Parker mainly because a lot of subjective opinions cloud people’s perspectives of this film. This is a story of Nat Turner, who led one of the largest slave revolts in American history.

If you’re interested, I decided to write about my experience seeing this film in two different settings. In the first setting, the film was viewed with a predominantly African American audience. In the second setting, the film was viewed with a more diverse audience. I must say there were some very interesting reactions when I compared the audience reactions in both viewings of the film. See that review here.

The Good
There were many historical references that tend to be neglected in typical “slave movies” throughout The Birth of a Nation. I appreciated the highlighting of the traditional African traditions and spirituality that enslaved people expressed and shared. The significance of such a feature reminds the audience that the enslaved people were not native to this land; however, that fact may be something we have come to take for granted. What I mean by that is, we may become so accustomed to seeing slaves in one particular way that they are almost Americanized in films. So, it’s nice to be reminded that these slaves were enslaved people who had their own customs and traditions before being captured.

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I thought it was really effective and central to both the movie and the character to display Nat Turner’s religious visions. If you happen to do any research or read The Confessions of Nat Turner, you will find that such visions were an important driving force for him.

Religion is most definitely a key motivating factor for the character of Nat Turner in the film. I appreciated how the film is able to counter some of the popular notions of how religion affected both the masters and slaves.

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We see how the slaves were forced to only preach supervised sermons under the watchful eye of the slave masters. However, we’re also shown the counter to that in which the slaves (when able to read) discovered that they were not given the full message of the Bible. This was especially riveting to see when Turner had his Bible verse debate with the other white reverend.

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I’m not sure if director Nate Parker did this intentionally or not, but there were many instances depicted in this film that were almost parallel to the racial conditions in modern society. You could easily see how some of the issues that were prominent in the 1800s are still manifested in other ways in American society today.

For instance, the body of the dead slave found in the street, unattended, is eerily reminiscent of the situation with Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. You also have the parallel of the slave catchers who were on the hunt for runaway slaves, but only given a vague description to target. This almost immediately brings to mind the issue of racially profiling and of police brutality toward minorities. Another example would be the slave owners’ disturbing mentality insinuating that black people are lazy, and how that very mentality still feeds into some stereotypes in today’s world. Lastly, while the character of Elizabeth Turner (played by Penelope Ann Miller) may initially seem like she was the only good white character, her deafening silence in the midst of evil acts prove otherwise. Throughout the film, her silence makes her no less guilty than those who remain quiet and watch injustice happen today.

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Another aspect of this film that I really appreciated was the cognitive dissonance that all the characters portrayed. It was very effective to see how the slaves had to believe one thing but then act like that same thing was not a problem. Same goes with the white masters or people in the film who have to undergo the mindset that they are good people whilst committing rather evil acts.

The Bad
My only issue with this film is that it got a tad bit passive with the ending retaliation of the revolt. Granted it is depicted in a few scenes, and some epilogue text, I think that it still missed the mark. If you check your history books, what happened after the revolt grossly overshadowed the revolt itself. I think that was equally as important to show since it was Nat Turner’s actions that contributed to such a heinous backlash. Since this was a low-budget film, maybe they ran out of funds, but I still think it was a missed opportunity. (I won’t hold this completely against the film, though.)

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The Reason
As with many “slave movies,” this is one that you really have to prepare yourself for. There are graphic scenes that have a bit of shock value to the film. It goes without saying that this film is a bit emotionally draining. Some people may feel very uncomfortable, and others may possibly get really angry. One way or another, it’s very difficult to walk away from this film without feeling anything at all.

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Now, unless you haven’t been listening to the news, this film does have a lot of controversy surrounding it given the actions of its director Nate Parker. Some may choose to boycott or not support this film due to this very controversy. I think they are completely in their right to do so. On the other hand, while I respect their right to boycott this film, I will not be advocating the same. Not to mention the fact that boycotting this film won’t hurt Nate Parker’s pockets since he’s already collected his money for this film.

I also think that if people do wish to infuse their opinion of Nate Parker into the film, The Birth of a Nation, then it would probably be wise to, at the very least, be as informed as possible. I won’t go into any details of Parker’s past, but I will say that after reviewing the court documents, I found that my opinion of him shifted slightly compared to when I was only relying on other people’s narratives of Parker.

I do not condone the actions of Nate Parker. I believe in separating him from his movie. I think that I can condemn his actions, and hold him accountable, while still recognizing the importance of this film. That importance is that a film like this helps American society actually learn about a piece of history that more than likely won’t be taught in our history books in school. The sad reality is that movies and media have become our real history books (regardless of historical accuracy). So as someone who only found out about Nat Turner (and many others) through a history course in graduate school, I’m very happy that this film is being brought to the masses. My hope is that it would encourage more directors and studios to make more films that highlight neglected minority figures in history. More specifically, my hope is that we can move to a place where Black history can finally become a part of American history.

As you can probably tell, I did like The Birth of a Nation. The film was put together very well, and while it was a bit of a task to watch, I felt as though it was well worth it. I would highly recommend watching it in theaters, or however you feel comfortable.

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