Subscribe to our newsletter


Film review: 'The Birth of a Nation' the awry tale of Nat Turner's twisted racism battle

The Birth of a Nation

Writer/Director Nate Parker’s first feature film depicts the last few years of the life of Nat Turner, a slave, lay minister, and leader of the best known slave revolt in American history. Turner’s failed rebellion is so well known, and associated with so many later events of significance, it is surprising that a film dealing with the event has never been produced until now.

Its title is taken from the well known 1915 D. W. Griffith silent film of the same name, a Civil War drama which dealt with, among other things, the alleged horrors of a black population not controlled by enslavement, and the relief offered to white citizens by the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. The film inspired a great deal of anti-black violence and the resurgence of the KKK. Parker stated that he “reclaimed and re-purposed” the title, ironically applying the name of a famous racist polemic to a film intended to “challenge racism and white supremacy in America.”

The first half of the film, slow-paced and detailed, deals primarily with Turner himself (played by the film’s director, Nate Parker). Born into slavery in Virginia, he should have been one of many indentured field hands; but Turner was evidently highly intelligent, and taught himself to read. Noticing this, his comparatively lenient master gave him a position inside the house and provided him with an education. Turner is fascinated by the Bible, and as an adult is given leave to act as de facto clergyman to the other slaves and conduct prayer services for them.

Turner is shown to possess a talent for inspirational speaking, which he regards as a gift from God. The film emphasizes Nat Turner’s tremendous devotion to Christianity, which included mystical overtones and, in his thirties, a sense that God was calling him for a specific purpose. That purpose soon revealed itself to him as a less peaceful mission than Turner would have predicted.During a minor epidemic of fugitive and rebellious slaves, Turner’s owner is offered money to bring his “black preacher” to other households, to speak to the slaves and inspire them to regard obedience as their Christian duty. Both men are uncomfortable with the assignment, but Turner complies. As he witnesses examples of brutality and humiliation against his fellow slaves, Turner becomes convinced that his true calling is to use his gifts to lead them to freedom. In one of the best managed scenes in the film, Turner slyly gives a sermon using Scriptural language ambiguously, so that the slave owners suspect nothing, but the slaves listening to Turner’s sermon recognise a condemnation of oppression and a furtive call to arms. He begins to plan for an insurrection, to speak cautiously of his ideas to trusted sympathisers, and to wait for an opportune moment.

The second half of the film expands into a tense and imposing melodrama about the rebellion itself. If the scenes of brutality against local slaves were graphic, those portraying attacks by the rebels are no less so. Turner’s inaugural slaying of his own master with an axe was gruesomely drawn out to express the man’s mixed feelings, as he is horrified but unapologetic at the massacre he has set in motion. The battle scenes are chaotic, giving an impression of uncoordinated violence which suits the situation.

Nate Parker chooses to elevate Turner beyond the position of rebel leader, and give him almost messianic overtones, which manage to stop just short of going too far. The first hour of the film, which was spent becoming familiar with the men and women living under slavery and with the conditions they endure, was not wasted. By the time Turner leads his group of rebels to their fate, the audience can easily identify with them, recognise Turner’s natural role as populist leader, and sympathise with even the most violent acts in their doomed struggle for freedom.Apart from Nat Turner’s religious mysticism, which had been known to lapse into the fantastical and which was toned down slightly the for movie, and some changes in his personal life (a wife is written into the story, while in reality it appears Turner never married), the script follows the partially known facts of the actual rebellion fairly closely. While making good use of additional characters, Parker wisely keeps the focus on Nat Turner, making him the film’s protagonist, the eye through which we observe the horrors of life in bondage, and finally the inspiration and catalyst for drastic action. The end of the rebellion, and the horrific reaction among white Virginians, is wisely skimmed over, leaving Turner and his followers something of a glow of accomplishment in the face of total defeat.

The eclectic soundtrack is very effective, in spite of ranging widely in musical genre; and the film’s beautiful and distinctive lighting and cinematography (by film veteran Elliot Davis) has already been pointed out by film buffs. The look, sound, and overall story, along with Parker’s moving portrayal of Nat Turner accompanied by an excellent supporting cast, make up for any flaws in the script, and hold the dark and dramatic story together.

Monica Reid.

For further viewing:

Free State of Jones (2016) Set in the American South but thirty years after Nat Turner, this film tells the story of a Mississippi county which chose to withdraw from the U.S. Civil War and declare itself an independent, slave-free nation.