A century after D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most groundbreaking of all movies, as well as a classic of American racism, we now get Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, an overwhelming, sympathetic portrayal of Nat Turner and his famous slave rebellion. When you watch Parker’s debut movie, and you definitely should (it opens at Filmscene on Friday, Oct. 7 and runs for at least two weeks; tickets $6.50-9), you feel that a page has finally and decisively been turned. D.W. Griffith paints the origin of the Klu Klux Klan in heroic terms, a way for the opposed white factions of the Civil War to reunite “in defense of their Aryan birthright.” Parker — who wrote, directed, and stars in this The Birth of a Nation — turns Griffith’s story inside-out, depicting how the harrowing daily violence used to perpetuate slavery radicalizes Nat Turner and his fellow slaves into an empowered consciousness of their destiny.
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in a video still from ‘The Birth of a Nation.’
The Birth of a Nation begins, in heroic fashion, with an African-tinged prophecy that young Nat Turner will grow up to be a great leader. We see him playing openly with the white boy who will one day be his master and also, crucially, learning to read the Bible. According to convention, the movie jump-cuts from his childhood promise to his compromised manhood. Despite his smarts, he’s forced to labor in the fields and, more humiliatingly, preach to other slaves about how God commands them to serve their masters.
After witnessing and enduring sickening abuse, he realizes his childhood promise by awakening to the liberating half of the Bible that promises vengeance for the downtrodden. God’s justice comes in the form of a slave rebellion in which Parker ensures that our satisfaction in the comeuppance outweighs, by just a little, our horror at the bloodshed. Though Turner’s revolt — as we all know, or ought to know — is violently quashed, Parker insists on a Hollywood ending: A boy who witnesses Turner’s hanging grows up to fight in the victorious Union army.
As notoriously liberal as Hollywood is, it’s always had a fraught relationship to black America, precisely because it’s so deeply plugged into the dominant fantasy life of our country. With a few exceptions, black experience is whitewashed altogether from Hollywood movies (and, notoriously, the Oscars) or else portrayed in perfunctory, if not downright racist, ways.
Parker is hardly sui generis; he follows in a long line of great directors who turn the camera on the realities of black lives (Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Steve McQueen — to name just a few). But I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a movie that so channels the violence and humiliations of racism into the justice narrative at the core of the American psyche. By comparison, Django Unchained is child’s play.
Parker’s debut isn’t perfect. I find the final violent persona of Nat Turner slightly underdeveloped, and the film’s male-female relationships are a bit pat. But its flaws are overwhelmed by its narrative drive, nuanced performances and sense of purpose. The movie is particularly superb in its evocation of the unrelenting humiliations of our peculiar institution. Parker shows that even the most decent master had to perpetuate a constant climate of fear, violence and dehumanization. Moreover, such “decent” terrorists were rare. The institution of slavery gave free rein to humanity’s sadistic impulses.
The revolt begins — video still from ‘The Birth of a Nation’
As you may know, The Birth of a Nation arrives under a cloud. Nate Parker and his friend Jean Celestin, a collaborator on the movie, were accused of raping a fellow student at Penn State in 1999. Parker was acquitted. Celestin was convicted, but then charges were dropped on appeal. In 2012, the accuser committed suicide. The recent coming-to-light of this story has made some uncomfortable about the movie itself — including one of its stars.
I don’t know what happened. I do know that great art is sometimes made by deeply flawed people. For instance, D.W. Griffith. I also know Parker has taken the tools and storyline of the movie blockbuster, originally forged by Griffith, and used them to excoriate racism rather than to perpetuate it.
Scott Samuelson teaches at Kirkwood Community College and is author of ‘The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone.’