American slavery was a brutal institution. In discussing the history of the United States, there’s no genuine approach to understanding social and political realities without highlighting how cruel and exploitative it was. We have seen the lives of the enslaved depicted in film before, but for the most part not in the context of rebellion.
One of the most common questions that students of American history ask when introduced to the topic of slavery is “why didn’t they fight back?” The complicated truth is, some did. As any group of people who collectively face oppression, reactions will vary. Some complied, while others fled. Flying in the face of myths made by slave holders of docile, “happy” enslaved Africans, there are instances in US history where the oppressed fought back. The Birth of A Nation tells the story of one of those rebellions. Nat Turner leads charge in “Birth of A Nation”
Birth of A Nation is a film based on an actual rebellion of the enslaved led by Nat Turner. This uprising took place in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. It lasted for two days, and resulted in the death of 60 white people. The insurrection was ultimately crushed, and Nat Turner was executed in public by hanging. This film adds context to that event that rocked the antebellum South in the early 19th century.
Nat Turner was one of a few of the enslaved who knew how to read. On the Turner plantation, as a boy the film depicts him being allowed to read only the Bible. Turner as an adult, played by Nate Parker, becomes a preacher. Turner is such a great preacher, that he is utilized to pacify the enslaved on other plantations. This is how he becomes familiar around Southampton County. While on “tour” with his owner Samuel Turner, Nat witnesses the cruelty of other plantation bosses against their slaves. This is what galvanized him to do what he did. He gradually turned against the notion of “obeying your earthly masters”
Religion can be used to as a tool of social control. Conversely, from the standpoint of the oppressed, some of it’s tenets can rally the people for the cause of freedom. Looking at it in the big picture, Nat Turner was a liberation theologist and a militant abolitionist. The violent rebellion he led was in response to a violent and oppressive institution that exploited, maimed, and killed routinely.
What you should know is that Birth of A Nation is not an easy film to watch. The violence visited upon those who are regarded as property is exercised on a whim. I winced in my seat at the lashes during a scene depicting a whipping. The film is very visceral and intense. There was also a scene where an enslaved person who tried to starve himself to death was force fed in a grisly manner. We see relationships among the enslaved occur in the film, only to be ripped apart by the realities of plantation life. Antebellum Virginia was brutal.
What makes this such a difficult film to wrestle with is that now is a particularly scary time to be Black in this country. Seeing a slave patrol dealing out violence at will on Black people in the film makes you draw a modern parallel to the police today killing unarmed Black people. Comply and still die is a reality and a possibility for so many people, and not one of us is safe. This film will upset you.
I’m saying all of this, and some of you are thinking why should you see this film. Are there other ways to learn about Nat Turner? Of course there are. Is the star of the film and director involved in a troublesome controversy due to his involvement in a past rape case? Yes. This film is still important, since it adds a visual component to the history of slavery rebellions in America. Films can sometimes inspire people to learn more about a subject in a way that books may not. This is a story that needed to be told in this medium. It is important to note that Nat Turner’s rebellion was the last major slave led revolt in this country before the Civil War which finally ended this “peculiar” institution. According to the Virginia Historical Society, because of Turner’s rebellion, no slave owner in Virginia felt secure in their “holdings” Slaveholders in Southampton reacted harshly, killing hundreds of enslaved Blacks. It ends with a boy watching Nat Turner’s public hanging being a union soldier 30 years later. It leads to one of the points of the film… which in my opinion was to show that a violent oppressive institution would have to be ended by violence that tore the country apart for 4 years.
While no one piece of work will change minds, Birth of A Nation does much to get a discussion going about a difficult subject in American history. It is a film, not a documentary, so it does depict some happenstances for dramatic effect. It doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the film. In showing a doomed rebellion, it reminds us that Black Americans fought back under much harsher conditions. There was even some concern among some reviewers that the film may “incite” Black people today. People aren’t incited by films, but by current realities, and this contemporary impasse that we find ourselves at with the system of law enforcement, and the courts. It upsets, because it hits too close to home. Ultimately, while Turner’s rebellion was crushed, his legacy lives on. Birth of a Nation adds to that conversation, and is a powerful film. It is worth seeing.
Marc Polite is an award-winning blogger and author based in Harlem. To read more of his commentary visit him at Polite on Society.