TORONTO – This is not to be confused with the other film of the same title, a 1915 silent film by director D. W. Griffith, which portrays the Ku Klux Klan as saviors who defend the antebellum system of slavery in the South and postwar Jim Crow. This new cinematic masterpiece tells the story from the victims’ point of view.
Never has a film captured the profound history of American slave rebellions as powerfully and artistically as Nate Parker’s 2016 film The Birth of a Nation. The story of freedom fighter Nat Turner and his 1831 revolt in Virginia has taken on deeper meaning owing to the diligence and artistic skills of actor Nate Parker (The Great Debaters). Not only is this Parker’s first directed film, but he also acted, produced and wrote the screenplay. Such an accomplishment ranks alongside pantheon directors like Orson Welles.
Parker and his cast were greeted by the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival with a deserved extended standing ovation after its premiere screening there in September. (See Editors’ note at end of article.) It was by a wide margin the most important and intense film at the Festival, coming at a time when America is dealing with its sordid history of slavery and current struggle against racism and police brutality.
You cannot watch this deeply moving film and not feel the humanity of the African American victims who were brutalized and held in bondage during the entire early development of the United States. Nat Turner, until now a name usually associated with a fanatic religious preacher, has become a human being with a loving wife and family, a literate slave preacher who as a victim of violent oppression incomprehensibly gains an intense desire to risk his life to free his people from bondage. Although his rebellion resulted in the deaths of around 60 whites, and hundreds more African Americans who were subject to hateful revenge, Parker offers that his actions ultimately “forced the issue of slavery to the forefront of American politics which would result in the Civil War and eventual emancipation.” Parker states, “For decades and probably still in many centers of the South, Turner’s name shudders the soul. He’s a terrorist to some, liberator to others.”
Turner survived the revolt and fled, but was captured two months later, imprisoned and eventually hanged. During his time in jail, his confessions were recorded by a wealthy lawyer (and slave owner) Thomas Ruffin Gray, who represented the other slave defendants. Many challenge the accuracy and interpretation of these writings, which were also used as a basis for a 1967 fictional work by Pulitzer Prize winner William Styron.
Using the same title, Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron embellished the story with his writer’s imagination; his approach was challenged by Turner advocates in the book William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.
There has never been a feature film on Turner and slave rebellions of this scope, although in 2003 the revered African American director Charles Burnett produced the stylized documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, which addresses the complex interpretations of Turner’s life and actions. The high production values of The Birth of a Nation are the result of years of preparation by Parker and his crew. It contains the most profound use of Billie Holiday’s rendition of the Lewis Allan song “Strange Fruit” in recent history, along with a music score by Henry Jackman that enriches the story and its complex emotions.
Among the remarkably effective cast who all shared in Parker’s dream of telling Turner’s story, Roger Guenveur Smith should be noted. His life’s work has included a road tour of a one-man play about Black Panther founder Huey Newton, another about Frederick Douglass, and he also appeared in many of Spike Lee’s challenging films about race and racism.
The film has a telling scene involving a young slave who at first joined the rebellion but backed away when it looked hopeless. He went back and snitched to his master, who informed the military that eventually quelled Turner’s rebellion. The young man is there to witness Turner’s hanging and a tear drops from his eye, which the director zooms into and then out to the face of a Black soldier 30 years later fighting to end slavery in the Civil War, implying the continuity of the struggle.
A constant determination in the African American community to address American injustice has resulted in one of the greatest films about race in American history. After watching this film that reached such dramatic heights, I felt like I would never have to see another film again. Nat Turner – terrorist religious fanatic or revolutionary liberator? The Birth of a Nation firmly sides with the latter definition and is sure to open much needed discussion on one of the most important topics in America. It opens October 7th in theaters across the country.
Ed. note: Not mentioned in the festivities was the fact that Parker and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin were accused in 1999 of raping a woman. In August, attention around the film focused on how the studio would handle promoting a social justice-oriented film whose filmmakers had been accused of rape. Parker was acquitted in 2001, while Celestin was initially convicted and sentenced to six months in prison, then appealed and was granted a new trial-a trial that never happened because the accuser declined to testify again. The accuser committed suicide in 2012. The film itself depicts a brutal rape. Parker has chosen for the most part to deflect questions about his past legal problems while doing press for his film.
The movie trailer can be seen here.
Photo: Colman Domingo and Nate Parker in The Birth of a Nation.