In some ways, the most audacious thing about Nate Parker’s much-hyped new movie The Birth of a Nation is its title.
Parker, who directed, wrote, and stars in this version of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion—some nine years in the making—is proposing his film as a corrective to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, the virulently white supremacist epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction that, however odious, is the unavoidable foundational work of American cinema.
Parker’s Birth is not the first such corrective. Against all odds, pioneering African-American filmmakers made near-instant rebuttals, including John Noble’s The Birth of a Race (1918) and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920). More recently, D.J. Spooky’s deconstructive remix Rebirth of a Nation used Griffith’s footage to turn the original against itself. Parker has something else in mind. Rather than directly addressing Griffith, he is suggesting an entirely new national origin story in Turner’s transformation from conciliatory preacher of the Christian Gospel to the enraged leader of a brief but convulsive uprising that presaged the Civil War.
On the evening of Aug. 21, 1831, some 40 slaves attacked and killed about 60 members of slave-owning families in Southampton County, Virginia. It was almost too perfect that Turner’s forces were marching toward an armory in the town of Jerusalem. The insurrection was put down within 48 hours with predictably bloody results, including the massacre of nearly 200 blacks who had little or nothing to do with the rebellion. Turner himself was able to elude capture for months. Shortly before he was hanged, he gave his unrepentant “confession” to a white Virginia lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, who had it printed and published in pamphlet form.
The Confessions of Nat Turner—in which Turner recounts his visions and affirms his sense of destiny, as well as giving a few details of his childhood and a few more concerning the revolt—is, however problematic, the major insight into Turner’s enigmatic personality. It also provided the title for William Styron’s controversial 1967 novel. Gray was impressed with Turner’s intelligence and integrity, pointing out that the condemned man took full responsibility for the rebellion he had been inspired to lead. He was even more impressed by Turner’s religious conviction: “He is a complete fanatic, or plays his part most admirably.”
Although Gray’s transcription of Turner’s statement may be the closest thing to a Turner gospel, it lacks a certain human interest. Parker, who cites Mel Gibson’s Braveheart as an inspiration for his movie, draws largely on Stephen Oates’ 1975 popular history The Fires of Jubilee—a dramatic narrative that fleshes out Turner’s story with unverified facts, mainly concerning his family, as well as imagined dialogue.
A movie actor himself who’s appeared in a number of genre films—most recently playing cops in Beyond the Lights and Non-Stop—Parker’s mission is to make a Hollywood hero out of a man who, according to Gray, understood himself as a biblical prophet. Turner’s American-ness is emphasized. The Birth of a Nation opens with a quote from Founding Father (and slave owner) Thomas Jefferson, that’s engraved on the Jefferson memorial: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” The movie ends with a brief flash-forward to a battalion of African-American troops fighting for the union. The hero’s African heritage is made apparent as well. The movie’s very first scene suggests the child Nat’s initiation into his forebears’ religion—a ceremony repeated before the climactic bloodbath.
But mainly, the movie emphasizes Nat’s movie-ness. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave compelled the viewer to contemplate the existential effect of slavery on a single individual. Birth has scenes that are equally or even more brutal but they are mitigated by comfortable cliché. Nat’s plantation childhood is scored with incongruously saccharine music. In a bizarre but thrilling meet-cute, he spots his future wife, Cherry (TV actress Aja Naomi King), at a slave auction and cannily manipulates his master (Armie Hammer) into buying her.
Nat’s courtship of Cherry is as romantic as it is decorous, culminating in a proper wedding and a perfect wedding night. Her subsequent pregnancy is an unmitigated blessing. Her gang rape at the hands of an itinerant band of white “slave catchers” is designed to personalize Nat’s hatred of slavery. Slavery may have been founded on the destruction of families, but Parker’s Nat is the consummate family man whose rebellion receives its ultimate sanction when, soon after it begins, he checks in with his mother to receive her blessing: “I’m proud of you.”
Nat’s mother might have been speaking of Nate Parker. The Birth of a Nation received an ecstatic reception last February at Sundance, as well it might. Winning both the jury and audience prizes, it appeared as the seeming antidote to the Motion Picture Academy’s recent and well-publicized snub of African-American actors and filmmakers, and there was immediate Oscar talk; Fox Searchlight paid a whopping $17.5 million for the rights, reportedly the biggest deal in Sundance history.
Then, some months later, the story broke that while a student at Penn State, Parker and his college roommate Jean McGianni Celestin, a fellow member of the wrestling team, co-credited with The Birth of a Nation’s story, had been accused of raping an unconscious 18-year-old freshman. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was not, although his conviction was overturned on appeal. The woman, who successfully sued Penn for failing to protect her from Parker and Celestin’s harassment, subsequently dropped out of college. She committed suicide in 2012 at age 30.
Blindsided when the story surfaced, Parker refused to apologize. “I was falsely accused,” he told TV newsman Anderson Cooper. “I went to court. … I was vindicated.” The case has nothing to do with Nat Turner or even Parker’s movie. But because The Birth of a Nation stars the filmmaker who conceived of the project and is consequently his psychodrama, and because its narrative pivots in part on an instance of gang rape, the woman’s death uncomfortably merges with the movie’s inspiring backstory.
Indeed, because Nate Parker plays Nat Turner himself, the meaning of the film is in some ways the making of the film—another chapter in the compelling saga of Nat Turner’s afterlife.
The Turner rebellion terrified white slave owners for decades even as it inspired the militant white abolitionist John Brown. Harriet Beecher Stowe portrayed Turner as a gloomy messiah in her novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, the 1856 follow-up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. African-American oral tradition emphasized the reign of terror perpetrated by the panicked slave owners following Turner’s revolt as well as Turner’s capacity to outsmart the white militia and remain at large after his uprising failed. W.E.B. DuBois included a Turner bibliography in his Harvard doctoral dissertation.
But the African-American revolutionary was truly reborn during his rebellion’s 1931 centenary celebration. The Turner uprising provided an organizational tool for U.S. Communists then actively recruiting black farmers in the South. (The centenary also coincided with one the great Communist causes of the 1930s, the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys.) Prodded by CP enthusiasm, the leading “bourgeois” civil rights organizations, the NAACP and the Urban League, hastened to adopt Turner as a symbol of their struggle. Communist writers hailed Turner as a working-class hero, an inspiration for poor white farmers as well as enslaved blacks to rebel against the slave-ocracy. (Needless to say, Turner remained anathema for Southern historians, who blamed him for ending whatever abolitionist sentiments had existed in the future Confederacy.)
The dawn of Nat’s second century was accompanied by a new interest in slave rebellion. The Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps published two notable novels on the subject: Black Thunder (1936), about Gabriel Prosser, who led an 1800 uprising in Virginia, and Drums at Dusk (1939), set against the Haitian Revolution (an event whose world historical impact on 19th century Europe and America has been largely repressed). Bontemps had also considered Turner as a protagonist and decided against it—he was uneasy with Turner’s apparent mysticism and as well as the white amanuensis who transcribed the Confessions.
While Turner also figured in social-realist murals and WPA publications, he was most significantly addressed by the Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, who, as a graduate student at Columbia University in the late 1930s, wrote his master’s thesis on Turner and a more inclusive doctoral thesis, published as American Negro Slave Revolts, in which Turner figured prominently.
Turner, whom Aptheker described as an “exhorter,” faded after World War II, a victim of Red Scare guilt by association who (although given a short chapter in the Communist leader William Z. Foster’s The Negro People in American History) was less appropriate than other African-American figures for the new civil rights movement. In the mid-1960s, Malcolm X praised Nat in his Autobiography for putting the “fear of God” into the white slave master: “Nat Turner wasn’t going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and ‘nonviolent’ freedom for the black man.” However, it was William Styron’s best-selling novel that brought Turner back into the spotlight in the era of Black Power.
Styron spent years working on The Confessions of Nat Turner, which—published to great acclaim in 1967, the year of the Newark and Detroit riots—won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction even as it provoked a concerted attack by African-American intellectuals. A white Southerner, Styron was criticized for trying to get inside the mind of a black slave, whom he represented as deeply conflicted. Although the novelist drew insights from the writings of the black psychologist Franz Fanon, his suggestion that Turner was in love with his master’s daughter was unforgivably offensive. (Styron would suffer similar, if less extensive criticism, when he published his Holocaust novel, Sophie’s Choice, in 1979.) It scarcely mattered that Styron was also savaged by Southern whites who regarded him as a renegade.
The film rights were sold to 20th Century Fox; the unmade movie, which variously involved Norman Jewison and Sidney Lumet as directors and James Earl Jones as star, is a saga all its own. After continuous controversies, it was put on hold in 1970, along with a number of other Fox projects, including an adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint. But while Portnoy was eventually made (opening to widespread derision in 1972), The Confessions of Nat Turner never was—although, as late as 1999, Henry Louis Gates Jr. brokered a meeting between Styron and Spike Lee. The Birth of a Nation is that film, with a difference: Parker’s Nat is largely deprived of an inner life.
Thomas Gray recorded that Nat Turner saw visions (“white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle”) and heard voices and that he communicated these revelations to blacks and whites. Parker’s Turner is scarcely possessed. Only one of the apocalyptic visions cited in The Confessions—droplets of blood oozing from an ear of corn—is visualized in the movie, and so briefly that one would have to be familiar with the text to catch it.
Rather than a prophet or messiah, Turner is a man of faith and a performer—like Parker, who has spoken of his Christian values. Nat is also a prodigy, who reads, understands and can preach from the Bible while still a child. While the evil of slavery is a continuous presence, the movie’s subtlest scenes show Nat’s exploitation. He is, in effect, rented out by his sodden owner to tour nearby plantations and expected to preach Christian forbearance to his dehumanized fellow slaves. While Nat clearly has doubts regarding his use, it is only when he is savagely attacked by his nominally pious owner for the sin of baptizing a white seeker of grace—beaten for his superior grasp of the Gospel and exposure of the Christian slave-ocracy’s fundamental hypocrisy—that his cup of indignities finally runs over.
Nat may be the true Christian, but in wreaking vengeance on his enemies he goes totally Old Testament. Parker provides a quick shot of the Bible opened to a passage about “smiting the Amalekites.” Meeting with his followers in the woods, Nat compares himself to David, Gideon, Joshua, and Samson. The carnage that follows, complete with decapitations, is fairly unflinching, although when Nat gives himself up he reverts to Christian mode, enduring a spontaneous beating, being taken into captivity, and led through a jeering crowd that strongly suggests the mob that taunted Christ on the road to the cross. (There is also a strong suggestion that he has been betrayed by a follower.)
So was Nat Turner driven mad or given clarity? Was he motivated by his religious convictions, his experience of social or racial injustice? Was he inspired by the examples of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and the Haitian Revolution? Was the revolt a desire for personal vengeance or an expression of solidarity? Was his a nascent Pan-African consciousness or an intimation of world-historical importance? Did he fight for family values? Was he a soldier of the cross? “At the risk of seeming ridiculous,” Che Guevara famously wrote, “let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love”?
Shrouded in myth, two ancient slave revolts continue to inform the Western imagination: There was the uprising that the enslaved gladiator Spartacus led against the Roman Republic a bit less than 2,000 years ago, and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt perhaps a thousand years before that. By contrast, Nat Turner’s revolt took place last week—and it’s still very much a work in progress. In the world of legend, Turner is something of a newborn.
To read more of J. Hoberman’s reviews for Tablet magazine, click here.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.