The Birth of a Nation
While it takes its title from D.W. Griffith’s deplorable, but significant, cinematic landmark of a film, by the second half of Nate Parker’s film about Nat Turner, a 19th Century slave who preached the gospel, and led a rebellion against his white owners pre-Civil War, it was obvious that Parker had also taken considerable influence from Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.” In the screenplay by Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, we get an important historical figure elevated to mythic status by an ambitious director who also saw fit to star as the character himself. No doubt, Gibson’s William Wallace is certainly more embellishment than Turner is here, but by the end, these two men of unshakeable faith, whose worldview has shifted dramatically as a result of brutality they have experienced in their lives, are turned into martyrs whose lives are ultimately part of a larger quest for freedom that will outlive them both. There’s something more important in what Parker is doing than what Gibson did, though, and it is what makes his choice of title so important.
Most people alive now have little need for silent cinema, unless they are connoisseurs of the silent comedians or horror masterpieces, and thus, know only of Griffith’s film in a film history context. It was the first major feature film produced in America, by a filmmaker who utilized every technique explored in the first 20 years of cinema to tell a sprawling story of the Civil War. What’s better known about it, however, is the film’s vulgar racism, including a portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviors in the South after Reconstruction and blacks as predatory criminals who looked for revenge for centuries of enslavement. As good as the film is technically, the narrative is indefensible during the second half, although it should not come as a surprise when you consider the source material Griffith chose was a play called, The Clansman. The legacy of Griffith’s film, which led to a revitalization of the Klan in the 1910s, is why Parker’s choice of title is both ironic, and important. Technically, Parker’s film is hardly a watershed moment of cinema, but it’s a powerful piece of storytelling that forces us to confront the brutality that led to the events in Griffith’s film, and were not honestly portrayed therein. That is what makes Parker’s film as important as Griffith’s- as infused by Griffith’s sensibilities and reality as the original film is, this could only be made by a black man who understands the other side of the story, and how it has been glossed over by the Griffiths of the world over the years.
The film starts with a young black boy being taken by his mother to an African elder, and being told that he will be a leader one day. Cut to a bit later, and we see young Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa) on a Southern plantation with his father. It is at night, and his father is stealing food for them. He is come across by three slave hunters- he doesn’t have the proper documentation to be out so late, and Nat is hiding in the woods. The hunters (led by Jackie Earle Haley’s Raymond Cobb) are ready to execute him, when he gets away, killing one of them, and he and Nat get back to the Turner plantation they live at. His father goes on the run, but that image is just the first of many that will sear into Nat’s memory, and transform him into the person he is in the 1830s. Now in his mid-20s, he is well-liked by the Turners, mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) and son Samuel (Armie Hammer), and he has learned to read the Gospel, which is all Elizabeth would teach him to read, and is the preacher to his fellow slaves. A white preacher friend of the Turners, Reverend Zalthall (Mark Boone Jr.), has the idea to have Nat preach to other people’s slaves as a way for the Turners to augment their income, which he does. But on his travels, Nat witnesses the horrors of slavery through different eyes, and after the harsh realities are brought forth to him in a way to is deeply personal, his Biblical message becomes very different. Asked to preach submission, he now reads about a place that demands freedom. It’s only through the sword, however, that Nat and his brothers will earn theirs, however.
Until we come to grips with the brutality of our enslavement of an entire race of people over the years, America will always be facing the same challenges and be unable to truly heal. Racial tensions have escalated proportionally over the years despite the movements towards equality earned during the Civil Rights movement as a result of police brutality and mass incarceration that targets minorities. Even more so than 2013’s “12 Years a Slave,” “The Birth of a Nation” looks to confront that divide by showing us our ugly past in hopes of educating us for a better future. We should all heed its hard lessons.