The Birth of a Nation — director, star, and cowriter Nate Parker’s take on Nat Turner’s failed slave uprising — may be a sadly timely movie. That certainly seems to be the point behind Mrs. Turner’s rather pointed, post-uprising observation that, “They killing people everywhere for no reason at all but being black.” It’s certainly a controversial movie, given its sympathetic portrayal of a religious extremist on a murderous mission from God. (Before he starts sharing his mystical vision wherein God authorizes rebellion, Nat spends time with his Bible, and the camera zooms in on 1 Samuel 15:3: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”) But it’s not a good movie. It looks bad, sounds cartoonish, skips jerkily from scene to scene, and seems weirdly illiterate about its narrative lynchpin: namely, religion.
A minor but significant example: What proves to be Nat Turner’s breaking point — what sends him on his mad religious crusade? It’s not the beating and rape of his wife (she stays his hand by providing the film’s only quotation from Jesus Christ, the line about living by the sword and dying by the sword). Nor is it the pimping out of his best friend’s wife, followed by his friend’s agonized question, “Where’s God now, Nat?” No, it’s the beating he receives after baptizing a white man, who the film tells us has been banned from every religious congregation in the area. But to be banned, you’d have to first be a member. And to be a member, you’d have to be baptized; that was your ticket into a traditional Christian church. Turner rebels because he’s punished for doing God’s work, but the moment makes no sense.
Parker’s film opens with young Turner being brought before a shaman, who looks at the marks on his chest and declares that the child will grow to be a teacher and a prophet. And the boy does seem special: early on, he steals a book from his master’s porch(!) and we see him reading it at night — an ability that is declared “a gift from the Lord”(!). It isn’t long before he grows up into a fine preacher, and so fine a preacher that his master begins hiring him out to speak a calming word to his fellow slaves, lest they grow restless and rise up. He dutifully cites Peter 2:18, “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (skipping over the reason for doing so, i.e., accepting injustice the way Christ accepted it), and he gets through, because, as one nasty master notes, “even the meanest nigger is afraid of the Gospel.”
The Birth of a Nation
Maybe so, but the film gives no sense of why that might be. Certainly, there’s nothing in Turner’s preaching to inspire fear, or much of anything else for that matter. Instead, we get modern-day Christian pabulum such as, “Take heart, for God is at work in your life, and he will not stop until that work is done.” Nothing about hellfire for sinners. Nothing about deliverance from this world of sorrows by the precious blood of Jesus. Nothing that would make a suffering soul pay any attention at all, not until he boldly preaches on the breaking of chains before an especially brutalized bunch. (And weirdly, is not punished for it by the men who earlier promised to kill him if he made any trouble.) It’s Christianity as social engineering, a tool wielded by both masters and slaves for earthly purposes. Which would be fine, except it doesn’t square with Turner’s own fervent belief or mystical visions. (The visions themselves are a bit of an ecumenical mess, suggesting a union between traditional African spirituality and Christianity that neither side would be likely to grant.)
There’s more that could be said, particularly about the anachronistic sensibilities expressed in the dialogue. But it’s enough to conclude that The Birth of a Nation feels like the work of a passionate amateur who knows the power of the story he’s telling but seems careless about how he tells it.