The Birth of a Nation, about the 1831 uprising of a slave community in the American south, is a fiery account of a rebellion against injustice and oppression. Based on a true story, the film offers an unflinching look at the brutal event. First-time filmmaker Nate Parker reclaims the film title “The Birth of a Nation,” from D.W. Griffith's 1915 pro Ku Klux Klan interpretation of the Civil War. Parker presents the story of Nat Turner, a slave preacher, who decided to right the wrongs against his people by taking up arms.
Unlike most films about slavery, which have focused on the perseverance and sacrifice of slaves in the American South during the antebellum era, The Birth of a Nation talks of rebellion and revenge.
The film follows Nat Turner’s journey to radicalization and rebellion. A studious boy, Nat was likely taught to read by his white masters, and became a recognized preacher in the slave community. His ability to soothe and console the enslaved hearts of his brethern was exploited by slaveowners, who saw the word of the Bible as a way to teach slaves passivity and obedience to the white master.
But during his preaching tours, Turner saw so much abuse against the slaves, he could no longer turn the other cheek. The more pain he witnessed, the more his sermons became combative, defiant, and aggressive. He was punished severely. His wife raped. But Turner did not submit.
Parker says he got invested in the story not only as a filmmaker and an actor, but also as an activist. “Understanding the importance of Nat Turner and projecting the story in a way that is positive and honest has been on my soul since the moment I said I need to make this film,” he says.
The film is powerful in its cinematography, its attempts at historic accuracy, and its compelling story of systemic prejudice and abuse.
Unfortunately, the movie, which had an early Oscar buzz, may be doomed to obscurity because of resurfacing allegations that Parker raped a young woman during his college years. Although he was acquitted in court in 2001, the news is threatening to overshadow his work. Time will tell if The Birth of a Nation will survive its controversial creator, as well as its controversial message that for the oppressed, sometimes the way to redemption is by the sword.