True story of a Virginia slave uprising in 1831, led by literate religious slave Nat Turner, who, with a group of seventy slaves, rose up against their slaveholders and killed close to sixty men, women and children in a 48-hour period. The rebellion was quashed before Turner and his men could attain their goal of securing artillery from a local armory to advance their cause.
Though not the only slave uprising in the Antebellum South, the Nat Turner Rebellion was certainly one of the most tragically fascinating.
Monsters That Should Not Be Downplayed
I got to see an advance screening of the movie, and I have to say first off, that the title of this movie is a brilliant subversion of the old 1915 silent epic, The Birth of a Nation, a racist tale of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan of the Democratic Party depicted as heroic. D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking filmmaking techniques gave the film historic significance as a landmark in the history of cinema. So it is only apropos that this new film reclaims that title, subverts it, and redefines our nation properly, by illustrating some of that origin as drenched in the blood of black slaves.
Writer-director Nate Parker reveals the atrocities of Southern slaveholding with artistic restraint. Rather than exploiting the suffering of Nat and his fellow slaves with gratuitous shock and gore, he effectively captures the mounting violence against them without losing the horror so necessary to the heart of this story. He deals with the monstrous evils of sexual abuse of slave women, the gang rape of Nat’s wife, and the brutal whipping of Nat, by showing the aftermaths rather than the unwatchable acts themselves.
Unfortunately, one of the monsters that is also not portrayed in the movie is Nat Turner…
Spiritual Liberator or Delusional Religious Fanatic?
Parker depicts the transformation of Turner from a devout Christian believer into a religious fanatic and false prophet with the same kind of subtlety and restraint. He does so to a fault, by making whitewashed references to Nat’s delusional visions that were on the level of a David Koresh or a Louis Farrakhan.
We see that in his youth, he was prophesied to have a purpose by an unusual birthmark on his chest (a common denominator in messianic delusions); he tells of his visions from God, along with a solar eclipse as the final “sign.” But we don’t really see the full extent of Nat’s messianic megalomania so evident in his historical Confessions:
“It was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at band… I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” (Nat Turner, Ed. Thomas Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, 2011, 10, 11.)[of their first murders] “There was a little infant sleeping in a cradle, that was forgotten, until we had left the house and gone some distance, when Henry and Will returned and killed it… Having murdered Mrs. Waller and ten children, we started for Mr. Williams Williams’… (Confessions, 12, 14)
Despite this selective exclusion of all the children’s murders in the movie, and of Nat’s mental derangement, it nevertheless captures some of the moral complexity of the times. Nat is used by slave owners to twist the Bible he treasures into a justification for human rights abuses and a means of discouraging slaves’ disobedience to their masters. This common canard of appealing to Ephesians 6:5 (“Slaves, obey your masters”) out of context and mistranslated, was in fact used throughout the South by slaveholding Democrats to uphold their religious facade. How could the uneducated know that Biblical bond-service had almost nothing in common with Antebellum racial slavery?
But when Nat sees that his support of this Democrat strategy of spin aids in the suffering of his own people, he begins to subvert the white men, unbeknownst to them and right in front of their faces, by preaching poetically the words of insurrection: “They will sing a new song, with praise on their lips and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the demonic nations, and punishment on those peoples…”
But his transformation to full-fledged violence is linked to a Bible verse, 1 Samuel 15:2-3, also completely taken out of context by Nat and falsely applied to his own situation. He reads God’s commands to Israel’s king Saul to strike down the sons of Amalek with utter destruction – every man, woman and child – as another “sign” for Nat to do the same. Nat then swings his pendulum to the other false extreme of using the Bible to justify revolution and begins his journey of hacking men, women and children to death.
The movie avoids showing the religious defiance of Christian abolitionists and their Scriptural attack on slavery and argument for peaceful civil disobedience, but it does show Nat’s spiritual turn with a hint of the thoughtful complexity in the Bible. Nat tells his first co-conspirators, “I see now that for every verse they use to support our bondage, there’s another demanding our freedom. Every verse they use to justify our torture, there’s another damning them to hell for those actions.”
Does the Bible Support Slavery or Not?
The sad reality is that the Bible is so rich and complex that everyone from black-oppressing Democrats to survivalist militia to serial killers continues to twist it out of context to justify their barbarism and atrocities – a revelation of the creative depravity of human nature, not of the text.
The real tragedy of this tale lies in the dismal failure of Nat’s rebellion, depicted as a black Braveheart kind of failure in the film, as if it became an inspiration for fighting against the odds for freedom that ultimately led to the Civil War and emancipation. Sadly, the house slave in the movie was right: it actually led to more murders of innocent blacks, and to the suppression of slave education for years to come. It justified the hateful prejudices of the Southern Democrats against blacks.
Of course, the truth is that many factors led up to that liberating Republican War for Emancipation, but was the Nat Turner Rebellion one of them?*
Godawa’s Quibble Corner
Okay, this time, it’s more than just a corner.
The most tragic aspect of this film is in its timing.
The release of the movie has been tainted by the 1999 rape case of Nate Parker and his co-writer, Jean Celestin. Though Parker was acquitted, and Celestin’s original conviction was reversed, a planned retrial was dropped because the female defendant was too psychologically damaged by the experience to go through with it again. After a third attempt at committing suicide, she sadly was successful and took her life.
Some may consider the resurfacing of that case as an unfair tar-and-feathering of Parker and Celestin, but I do not consider it a coincidence that these men with an alleged history of sexual violence would be making a movie that could easily be seen as a call to violence. Violence, after all, begets violence.
In any other decade, The Birth of a Nation might have been an educational story that revealed the true evil of racial slavery and one of the many ways in which it was resisted in America. A work of art that raised the peaceful debate of religion in relation to slavery and freedom. A fair conversation-starter about the issues of peaceful civil disobedience versus violent resistance.
Maybe it still can be.
But movies are not made in a cultural vacuum. They reflect the times in which they were made and must not be interpreted outside of that context. This situation is no different.
Here is the cultural context that I believe stains The Birth of a Nation:
We live in a world of conspiracy theories run amok. Black Lives Matter, aided by the privileged power of the Democratic Party and the Left Wing Media, continues to infect our culture with hatred, bigotry and violence. They not-so-subtly encourage riots, immoral mob violence, black racial hatred of whites and cop-murdering. They fuel a racist and false narrative of widespread inherent white racism, police hunting innocent black people, a Jim Crow legal system of coordinated injustice against black men – all in almost complete inversion of the facts. (In how many more justified police shootings of guilty criminals will our President irresponsibly support the guilty criminal, which only inspires more anarchy and lawlessness?)
What I see unfolding before me is the social construction of a narrative of delusion that creates the false impression in the black community that they are still in a kind of slavery. It manipulates them to see their situation as analogous to the Antebellum South or the days of Jim Crow.
And the logic of the analogy goes like this: if they are still enslaved and the law itself is unjust, then that justifies them “fighting back” to “gain their freedom” and “protect their families” and “human rights.” A narrative that justifies lawless violence using the moral language of “social justice,” “oppression,” and even “patriotism.”
As Saul Alinsky might say, it is satanically genius.
Sadly, there are racists in America. There are racists in every country on the face of the earth, both white and black, and of all colors. And yes, America is not perfect. We cannot stop working on her. She has her many faults, and many immoral individuals. But America is not a racist nation. As a matter of fact, right now in America is a time and place in history when blacks, and most people of color, have it better than in any other nation in the history of the world. More blacks have immigrated to America for its freedom than were forced here as slaves. People of color from all over the world are fighting to get in. And yet, at this very moment of spiritual progress, Democrats, the Left-Wing Media, and racist haters like BLM are virtually inciting a race war.
This is insane. And evil. Even some churches are falling prey to the hate.
And unfortunately, I see The Birth of a Nation as unavoidably feeding that narrative of violence and crime. How could it not? It appears to fit the false analogy that has been constructed, regardless of how fallacious that analogy is. It connects emotionally with the zeitgeist of modern victimology. That connection is not factual or even rational. That’s how fascist propaganda works.
The Birth of a Nation is a true story of real oppression that will no doubt be used in the service of a false narrative of manufactured oppression.
Imagine with me, if you will, a movie made by Christians that showed the tragic murder of abortionist John Britton by Paul Jennings Hill as a defensive act against the genocidal slaughter of innocents. Imagine that movie showing the brutal results of baby-killing: the chopped up body parts of innocent preborn children, their skin burned by salt injections, their skulls crushed by forceps. Now imagine the sincere beliefs of Paul Hill that abortion is legalized murder of a lawless justice system that is engaged in genocide (BTW, that genocide is focused most on blacks by a 5 to 1 margin). And now listen to him describe visions from God and his Scriptural arguments to justify it. Now consider that movie showing Hill heroically go to his death as an inspiration to stop the massacre of preborn children, with pro-deathers glorying in it all with bloodlust.
What would you think of that movie? Would you call that a dog-whistle to inspire violence from the Christian community?
Yeah, you would (unless you were like those slaveholders). And you would probably be right.
I pray I am wrong. But my heart has broken for the black community whose real victimization has been from their spiritual bondage to left-wing political policies that, like their slaveholding Democrat forebears, have enslaved them to welfare, poverty, unemployment and crime through big government dependency, anti-father anti-family values, infantilization, and victim politics, as well as kept them bound in urban plantations.
And that is the most tragic irony of all. The black community is being encouraged to violence against illusionary institutionalized oppression, and they are being incited by the same racist bigots who tried to keep them uneducated in slavery.
It is for that reason that I fear The Birth of a Nation will be a dog-whistle call to violence in liberal and black communities supporting those delusionary political grievances and that manufactured oppression.
And, no, I am not a Republican.
* John Brown’s failed raid on Harpers Ferry, a very similar story to Nat’s attempted uprising (except that Brown was a white abolitionist – I wrote a screenplay on this), actually did become that symbol that was deliberately invoked by the Republicans and others towards civil war.
One comment on “The Birth of a Nation: Black Braveheart or Black Paul Hill?”
This movie was basically “Braveheart!” Y’all can say all you want, but that’s what it was!