‘The Birth of a Nation’ provides a nuanced narrative of the Nat Turner rebellion
This February, the YMCA Storer Camp located in Jackson, Michigan ended a 20-year-old tradition — a campt activity known as "Underground Railroad."
After hearing complaints from African-American families that their children attending camp had returned home expressing trauma, the Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union penned a letter to the CEO of the U.S. YMCA, expressing their distaste for the event, which one African-American parent described as “racially insensitive.”
Very quickly, the camp activity, known as the “Underground Railroad,” was permanently cancelled. As someone who was asked to participate in this simulation during the first month of seventh grade, I have one thing to say:
It didn’t sit well with me at the time. I remember feeling uncomfortable that most members of the staff putting on the slavery simulation were white. I recall being forced to watch a white counselor verbally abuse and pretend-whip another white counselor as a part of my public education curriculum — yikes.
Why am I telling you about this? I guess it’s because I find it disturbing that the first time I learned about Nat Turner was by watching a white man perform as him onstage. I don’t think watching a camp counselor use a terrible Black southern accent and raise a plastic gun in the air, yelling about bible verses and rising up against the white man, was the best way to learn about a vastly important figure in Black history.
I wish I could’ve had the opportunity to watch “The Birth of a Nation” instead. It would have provided the exact opposite experience — an extremely intriguing, harrowing and rousing film concerning the figure of Turner, crafted by members of the Black community.
It’s bold in a number of ways. Its title, taken from D.W. Griffith’s brutally racist 1915 epic drama that has (undeservedly, according to my film history professor) been canonized by the film community as one of the greatest and most important movies ever, is searing with white-hot irony and anger. The film is completely unafraid to place spirituality at the forefront of its thematic spectrum, dealing with prophecies and dreams and messages from God in some of the most visually arresting sequences of the year. Finally, and most strikingly, “The Birth of a Nation” allows itself to imbue Turner with complex, but righteous heroism. I know of many who would balk at the portrayal of this controversial historical figure as a capital h Hero. But in the same cinematographic manner that the original “Birth of a Nation” painted clansmen as righteous protectors, the new film portrays Turner as a spark of rebellion, one that will successfully influence generations of minorities crusading against injustice.
The film is effective not only because of these choices, but also because it features Parker’s strong direction and several of the best performances — and sequences — of the year. Parker and Armie Hammer (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”), two excellent leading men, explore a fascinating slave-master dynamic that’s more emotionally layered than other portrayals of such a relationship. Aja Naomi King (“How to Get Away with Murder”) is also too fascinating to be placed in the rather standard “lover” archetype she sports here.
And although it loses steam during its second quarter, which sets aside too much time for a rather weak romantic sequence between Turner and King’s Cherry, “Birth of a Nation” is well-paced and structured. Stylistically, it’s an interesting intersection between genre attraction and traditional screen drama. There are sequences of violent revenge that are extraordinarily entertaining and cheer-worthy. There are equally as many dialogue sequences with workmanlike cinematography that are excellent merely because of their subtext.
One of the most fascinating thematic aspects of “The Birth of a Nation” is its examination of religious interpretation. The film uses its religious characters to explore passages of the Bible that address bondage, in extremely interesting ways. The dichotomy between how Turner uses these passages and how white preachers use them provides a compelling religious dialogue unlike any I’ve seen in film before.
“The Birth of a Nation” is precariously close to a great film. Although a disturbing reality is certainly present in this film, such a bold film feels flat when the director decides to cut away from too many of the gory details. But the power of the film is undeniable, especially for something filmed on a relatively low budget.
If only I had the masterful string of films about slavery that have been released in the past several years, instead of the disturbingly problematic public education I received. I see “The Birth of a Nation” becoming a standard for both education and entertainment far into the future.
A note: I understand that there is significant controversy surrounding this film in relation to the rape allegations of Nate Parker. I feel there are voices stronger and more relevant than mine that have written extensively about this subject, so I have declined to address this issue in my review. Instead, I encourage you to read Daily Arts Writer Madeleine Gaudin’s piece, which addresses the issue with intellect and sensitivity.