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The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner as Revolutionary Liberator

Bill Meyer: 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.

This is not to be confused with the other film of the same title, a 1915 silent film by acclaimed director D. W. Griffith, which portrays the Klan as saviors who defend the antebellum South and its system of slavery. This cinematic masterpiece tells the story from the victim’s point of view, and never has a film captured the profound history of American slave rebellions as powerfully and artistically as Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The story of freedom fighter Nat Turner and his 1831 revolt in Virginia has taken on deeper meaning and understanding due to the diligence and amazing artistic skills of actor Nate Parker (The Great Debaters). Not only is this his first directed film, but he also acted, produced and wrote the screenplay! This is no easy accomplishment and ranks along pantheon directors like Orson Welles.

The Birth of a Nation

Never has a film captured the profound history of American slave rebellions as powerfully and artistically as Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation.

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. 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. In this film 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 victims of 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.”

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Turner survived the revolt and fled for two months but was captured, imprisoned and eventually hung. It was during his time in jail that 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, who also penned Sophie’s Choice. Using the same title, Confessions of Nat Turner, he embellished the story and his summations were challenged by Turner advocates in a book entitled, 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 a stylized documentary called 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 a result of years of preparation by Parker and his crew. It contains the most profound use of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit in recent history, along with a music score by Henry Jackman that enriches the story and its complex and deep emotions. Also, it’s not to be overlooked the unintentional comparison between these two driven individuals – Nat Turner, Nate Parker, both fighters motivated by courage and an unchallenged desire to right the wrongs of our imperfect Union, one with guns the other with film.

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 the one man play about Black Panther founder Huey Newton, and also appeared in many of Spike Lee’s challenging fares about race and racism. Here he plays the role of the house Negro, the Uncle Tom who attempts to keep Turner’s growing awareness of the need for action in check. There’s also 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 the rebellion resulting in Turner’s failed mission. 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 a face of a Black soldier in the Civil War fighting to end slavery, implying the continuation of the struggle.

The Birth of a Nation

It’s this constant determination in the African American community to address American injustice that has resulted in one of the greatest films about race in American history. A 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? This film which firmly sides with the latter definition is sure to open much needed discussion on one of the most important topics in America when it has its theatrical release this coming October 7th in theaters across the country.

bill meyer

Bill Meyer