R, primarily because of the horrors of slavery. Part of this depiction stresses the inhuman violence and cruelty bestowed upon the slave. Rather than simply seeing the result of violence, the film often shows the blows as they occur. Similarly, there is regular discussion and depiction of rape. There is nudity in a sexual context. But the violence of the rebellion can also be inappropriate for children. R.
DIRECTOR: Nate Parker
I have it on good authority that my film class will return next year. I don't know if I would ever watch the 2016 version of The Birth of a Nation if I hadn't taught the original monstrosity in my film class. I remember that we used to watch the trailer for the 2016 version after finishing the original film and we discussed why Nate Parker would name his film about the Nat Turner Rebellion after one of the most heinous films in history. Yeah, I get it now. I don't know if the movie drives that point home as intensely as it should, but it is something to think about.
I read up about this movie. Back when I saw this trailer in 2016, I thought about how insane this movie looked. It looked visceral and painful to watch. There was all this buzz about the movie and how it was going to be a talking point about race. Then, it came out and it somehow faded away. It's not like there were bad reviews that were coming my way. Then I found out that Nate Parker, the director and star of the movie, had sexual assault charges against him, which caused this movie to kind of fall through the cracks of history. It's a shame. I share the moral outrage of the victims and Nate Parker should suffer the consequence of his actions. But this is also a man who would have had a voice. It's just this overwhelming sadness for everything involved (but, to be clear, primarily for the victims.)
I remember in high school reading about the Nat Turner Rebellion. It's nothing new to say that whiteness has tinted our accurate understanding of history. Nat Turner, according to the very little amount of text devoted to the subject matter, was a foolish slave who caused more problems than he solved. And I believed that. Oh, heck yeah I believed that. I also have a vague memory of my history teacher being the coolest guy in the world, only to realize that he probably believed in the Lost Cause conspiracy. I'm dealing with a lot of race realities in 2021 is the long-and-short of it. I'm really trying to not White Knight here, so please be patient. I read a lot of The People's History of the United States. My next book is How to be an Anti-Racist. But my knowledge of Nat Turner is spotty at best. It's odd, not being able to trust your own knowledge, especially being a teacher. It often feels like education is one giant game of telephone and we hope that we're lucky enough to hear the message before us clearly and accurately.
But in terms of narrative, I kinda / sorta love what The Birth of a Nation does is that it pretends like it is mincing words when, in reality, it's just prepping you for a sledgehammer to the head. One of the things that I really don't like about race movies is the concept of "the good slave owner." We have discussions about the possibility of the moral slave owner in my class and this is still a belief that a lot of my students hold onto. It's really gross. It really feels like The Birth of a Nation wants to mislead you into thinking that this is the story of the good slave owner, who when juxtaposed against other slave owners, allowed Turner to have his own thoughts and beliefs. It's really not that. We see young Nat play with young Samuel. When they age, we see Sam take Nat's feelings and desires into account. Elizabeth Turner teaches Nat to read. But we also see how microaggressions are significantly more dangerous than we realize in these moments. When Sam saves Cherry from the auction, he expects to be rewarded for this altruistic decision. When Elizabeth teaches Nat how to read, it is only from the Bible. She distinguishes the kinds of books that are appropriate for white people and for Black people.
And we see how race becomes a matter of superiority and inferiority really quickly. Sure, the movie presents the characters who are over-the-top racists. These are the characters that, in the White Savior films, give the white audience a sense of comfort. After all, "I'm not as bad as that caricature of a human being which makes me one of the good ones." But it's not in these portrayals that we learn anything. It is in the seduction of Samuel. Samuel can afford to be a well-behaved slave owner when things are going well. He sees affable enough for most of the movie. But when his family's success is on the line, he has almost no reservations about allowing a Black woman to be raped. And it is in that shift that Nat's perspective mirrors our own. Nat sees his world as a blessed one for most of the movie. He isn't abused. He has a master who seems to care about the welfare of his family. But it is in moments of disobedience and minor slights that he sees the reality of the illusion of the Deep South. Nat is used as a tool of propaganda with his faith. He knows the truth and has a hard time distinguishing which parts of his faith need to be spoken about.
I'm all about protest rights. I have been most of my adult life, but it's been since the summer of 2020 where I've really had to put my own beliefs into a pressure cooker. I was one of those people who believed in the white lens of Dr. Martin Luther King. I am a pacifist. I will probably always be a pacifist. When King's speech aligned with those beliefs, it was comfortable to find valediction in those words. But I also understand that I have the privilege to avoid conflict. Taking into consideration the position of Nat Turner, the narrative that I have been taught about him has been wildly misconstrued. Yeah, the attack on the slave owners was brutal. It borderlined a horror movie. But from the slave's perspective, it kind of became this just war. Turner and other slaves, regardless of comfort of circumstance, were less than human. They had their rights trampled upon and nonviolent protest would be a death sentence. Turner's rebellion made the most sense imaginable and it was done in the name of faith.
That has to be one of the biggest challenges for me, by the way. Turner's education was almost exclusively built around the idea that he was a preacher. He read no other book besides the Bible. He was an expert at it. He read what it said about slavery and his position forced him to ignore that element of the Bible. But isn't that what happens in today's society? We got really bummed out going to church last week. All these people without masks. I'm sorry to imply that there might be a hop-skip-and-a-jump assumption that the anti-maskers might also have other problematic politics behind them, but I'm not that sorry. I don't understand how the faithful can stand by the deaths of refugees or spit on the concept of Black Lives Matter. It's the same cherry-picking that the religious in The Birth of a Nation espouse, quoting the lines that ignore the context of the Bible as a whole. It bums me out.
Nate Parker made this film that is visceral. I don't know how accurate it is. I want to hope that it is accurate because my '90s / 2000s history courses were woeful inadequate when it came to racial issues. But it is a commentary about when fighting is necessary. I have the luxury to fight the nonviolent battle, but I have to acknowledge that there is a whole demographic of society that is fighting for survival. Do I wish that real change could be brought about through quiet demonstrations? Absolutely. But I also see how the world has revealed itself to be quite the bleak place over the past four years.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.