Nathan Parker’s The Birth of a Nation plays up to Oscar hopes
The Birth of a Nation is a strange title for a film about the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831. The original The Birth of a Nation is D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic about the founding of the Klu Klux Klan, a propaganda film that is still considered a masterwork in film history due to its technical innovation.
Director Nathan Parker claims to have to “re-purposed [the title] as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country” and while the overtones of the film certainly drive this message home, it’s odd that Parker felt it necessary to score points against a racist film director who died nearly seventy years ago, particularly when the majority of film audiences are likely to be unaware of the original in the first place.
To be clear: 2016’s The Birth of a Nation has absolutely nothing to do with the original film. Nathan Parker’s film tells the story of the bloodiest slave revolt in U.S. history, one that occurred some thirty years before the start of the Civil War. The film fits in the category of Oscar-bait, detailing the horrors of one of the two Academy approved atrocities (American slavery and the Holocaust). It can be compared to a variety of films and miniseries, from Twelve Years a Slave to Roots, from Glory to Django Unchained, and it holds its own with each of these tales.
Parker has told an effective story with The Birth of a Nation, but its emotional impact is lessened for any student of history that already knows the outcome. There is a sense of doom that hangs over the entire film—no matter how stirring the words of the slave preacher Nat Turner are to the ears of his flock, the war to free them won’t even begin until 1861.
The Birth of a Nation is particularly strong in its images of slavery—it shows the distinct differences in the lives of slaves depending on the master who owns them. Where the Turner family treats their slaves with at least a modicum of respect, giving them their own cabins and allowing for marriage and family, others see them as little more than livestock.
The central conceit of the story shows Nat visiting local plantations to spread the word of God at the behest of his master Samuel Turner. The white landowners are concerned with a potential uprising and offer Samuel another source of income if Nat visits to remind slaves of God’s commandments concerning obedience.
Through this tour, Nat’s eyes are opened to the conditions many of his people endure at the hands of their masters. His travels begin to instill in him a sense of responsibility and a desire for revolution. After the brutal rape and beating of his wife, and an unjust punishment because Nat dare to baptize a white man seeking forgiveness, he sees no choice but to lead a violent revolt against his oppressors.
Slave uprisings in the antebellum South never lasted long. Nat Turner’s was a mere 48 hours. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance of a film like Twelve Years a Slave because it lacks the cathartic release at the end.
Soloman Northrup is rescued and sent home at the end of his film, giving the audience a respite from the horror they witnessed over the course of the film. Nat Turner never had a chance and his actions cause far more death and misery for his people.
The film argues that these men were truly free because they threw off their shackles and struck back at the oppression that surrounded them. It’s a powerful message, indeed. However, the essence of freedom is choice and the many slaves who chose not to rebel suffered the same fate as those who did.
Few would argue that Turner’s rebellion wasn’t justified, but some might question if the outcome was worth the loss of life. Those that do are likely the same that would ask Martin Luther King Jr. to wait a century later, as his sat in a Birmingham Jail.
The Birth of a Nation is a good start to this Oscar season. More “important” films are sure to follow as we inch our way towards the end of the year.