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Birth Pangs of a Nation

Issue 218

Nate Parker's new film is flawed but has at least one redeeming quality

Mark Read Oct 21, 2016

"Is there anything redeemable about the movie?” I was asked about Nate Parker’s new film, Birth of a Nation. The question struck me as ironic: The film’s central themes revolve around the question of redemption. Add to this Parker’s real-life efforts to redeem himself in the public eye after recent revelations of his 1999 arrest for sexual assault and rape (he was acquitted, while his codefendant and co-writer, Jean Celestin, was found guilty but later had the conviction overturned), and the theme of redemption begins to feel omnipresent within and around the world of this film.

Redemption is defined in the dictionary as “the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.” The sin here is chattel slavery in the United States. Salvation from this evil is the central struggle for all the characters in Birth of a Nation, as told through the eyes of its protagonist, Nat Turner, the famed leader of the 1831 slave revolt that was the bloodiest in U.S. history. But the film “explains” Turner’s decision to lead the revolt as a direct response to the rape of his wife. This unmoors the rebellion from its historical reality as an uprising based on moral opposition against the institution of slavery itself. Somehow, that motivation wasn’t deemed sufficiently dramatic, so the rebellion is transformed into a revenge narrative, a vehicle to redeem black masculinity from the humiliations of slavery.

In telling this story, rather than the actually true and more politically powerful story of slaves rising up against slavery as a path towards redeeming black humanity, Parker has diminished the power of this important history. Furthermore, by characterizing the women primarily as victims whose violations serve solely to motivate male action, he has effectively sidelined Black women, silencing the historical echoes of women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. It is for those reasons that black historian Leslie Alexander dismissed the film as an “epic fail” in her review for the Nation magazine.

Redeeming Qualities

The film is not entirely without redeeming qualities, however. The depiction of the relationship between Nat Turner and his owners, the Turner family, particularly the relationship between Nat and their son Samuel, functions as a powerful metaphor through which Parker addresses a modern audience about the conditions that allow white supremacy to continue.

The Turners are shown to be “good masters” throughout most of the film. They are kinder and more generous to their slaves than most, allowing a degree of dignity and autonomy that appears to make life as a slave bearable, at least for Nat. Nat and Samuel are shown playing together as small children. Mrs. Turner is the classic compassionate slave-owning missus, teaching Nat to read, protecting him from the hard labor of the fields, and even allowing him to read the Bible before her all-white congregation. Later, when they’ve grown up, we witness Samuel Turner risk his social position to defend Nat from attack by a white man. These two men are depicted as close companions capable of mutual respect, connected through old bonds of friendship. Parker is setting the audience up to feel some affection for Samuel: He isn’t such a bad guy after all. He didn’t create slavery, and he’s doing his best to be decent within an indecent system upon which his entire way of life relies.

Nat’s evolution from contented slave to revolutionary prophet parallels Samuel’s descent from apparent decency into alcoholism and cruelty. These evolutions transpire during a tour of slave plantations, after Samuel agrees to rent out Nat’s gifts as an itinerant preacher. They travel from one horror show to another, witnessing increasingly brutal and terrifying conditions. This tour feels reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained, but instead of the gleeful satisfaction of seeing a former slave punish evil slave owners with the aid of his white ally, we witness a slave forced to mollify and pacify other slaves through sermons that encourage loyalty and deference to authority.

As the fundamental and irredeemable brutality of slavery is laid bare, these two men inexorably grow estranged. We see slavery driving one towards madness and  the other towards destruction. Samuel is constantly drunk, growing ever more callous and cruel, enabling rape and demanding torture. Nat grows more fierce and prophetic, enlisting followers and demanding bloodshed in return. Their fates are inseparable.

Until We Are All Free

Watching this drove home for me the centrality of the concept of interdependence, as articulated within moral philosophy, particularly by Christian moral philosophers from Reinhold Niebuhr to James Cohn to Cornel West. Parker has animated the fundamental truth that oppression degrades both the oppressed and the oppressor. This is never to say that these degradations are in any way equal. It is to say, however, that one’s personal freedom is bound up with the freedom of others. Despite his power and position, Samuel cannot be truly free, because Nat is not free.  

Neither, it seems, can Samuel Turner or his family be redeemed, so long as the institution of slavery persists. The kindness and good intentions of the Turners cannot save them from the violent consequences of a violent system from which they benefit. The Turners and the people that they represent — decent and well-meaning whites — cannot or will not imagine a life for themselves without slavery. For this reason, they cannot be redeemed, and that is a tragedy.

This is a powerful lesson for white people today. We are not free until everyone is free. Looking away from the fundamental and institutional ways that black people are kept down and simply trying to demonstrate good intentions will not redeem us.  If we are not fighting for universal emancipation, we are ensuring the continued bondage and oppression of our brothers and sisters.

Despite Birth of a Nation’s significant flaws and problems, the film powerfully communicates these messages. While I can’t strongly recommend it, neither can I dismiss it so easily.

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