The Birth of a Nation, rated R
This powerful film about Nat Turner is written, directed by and stars Nate Parker. He wrote the screenplay based on a story he wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin. Parker worked on the film for seven years, which was shot on location in Savannah, Georgia over just 27 days. This is the first film he has directed, and it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Parker put up $100,000 of his own money toward the budget of approximately $10 million. Parker takes the title of the film from a 1915 KKK propaganda film of the same name.
Turner was a Virginia born slave. In an early scene we see him as a young boy being referred to as a prophet. We see scenes of his childhood on a cotton plantation in Southampton County, owned by the white Turner family, from whom Nate took his surname. Unlike most slaves, when he was young, Turner (the young Turner is played by Tony Espinosa) was allowed to read and play with the Turner heir Samuel (the young Samuel played by Griffin Freeman, later played by Armie Hammer). Elizabeth Turner, his female slave owner (Penelope Ann Miller) cared for him and allowed him to read only the Bible. As he grew up on the plantation Turner became a preacher to the slaves.
As an adult, Nat continues his friendship with his now master Samuel. He convinces Samuel to buy a young slave Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who Nat will fall in love with, marry and have a daughter. Of note, the real-life Turner never mentioned having a wife in his writings.
Amid rumors of insurrection and violence, the less than respectable Reverend Walthall (Mark Boone Jr.) convinces the financially struggling Samuel to rent Nat out to other plantation owners as a visiting preacher, with the intent to show the slaves that the Bible teaches a gospel of peace and that they should obey their masters. Samuel, who is in fear of losing his farm and drinking heavily, shamelessly takes up the Reverend on his offer.
The film contains a noteworthy amount of positively portrayed Christian content and also shows how Scripture can be misused and distorted by evil people. It includes a significant and graphic amount of violence, especially the last part of the film. It also includes several uses of the word “n-gger”, the abuse of God’s name and two brief scenes of nudity.
Nat never strays from his strong belief in God as he sees and experiences physical and sexual abuse of slaves – including his own wife; in reading the Old Testament about the wrath of God he is driven to revenge/taking justice into his own hands.
With the ongoing racial issues in our country now 185 years after the events in this film, this is undoubtedly a very important film, especially given Cherry’s statement to Nat “They’re killing people everywhere for no reason at all but being black”. The brutality of the violence depicted will certainly be enough to keep some away, and that’s a shame. Parker’s acting performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination. I don’t know how accurate his depiction of Turner’s story is; that’s worthy of further research. The 1831 rebellion Nat Turner led over a 48-hour period resulted in the deaths of more than 60 white slaveholders and their families. But in the hysterical climate that followed the rebellion, close to 200 black people were murdered by white mobs, some of whom were already free and many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion.
Despite the fact that this is a brutal film and a difficult one to watch, I believe that this is a film that everyone should consider seeing.