The Birth of a Nation

This review of The Birth of a Nation originally published during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival when the movie premiered. – Editor

The Birth of a Nation chronicles the life and death of Nat Turner, the African-American preacher who led a slave revolt in Virginia in 1831. The revolt resulted in the deaths of between 55 and 65 white people, was quickly quelled by the Virginia militia, and upwards of 200 other slaves were killed by militias and lynch mobs across the South in retaliation. Nat Turner was captured after two months of hiding and hanged.

The Birth of a Nation shows all of the facts of Nat Turner’s life and rebellion as they are known, often showing them in gruesome detail. It also visualizes Turner’s visions which he claimed were from God to guide his actions. The Birth of a Nation is a passable portrait of one of American history’s most confounding figures.

Turner is confounding, because while he claimed the Christian faith and was renowned in his day as a preacher, he also killed as many white people as he could when his rebellion ignited. The Birth of a Nation depicts this conflict by having Turner first preach on behalf of the slave owners. He preaches the passages they tell him to preach that Christians long used to subjugate slaves.

As Turner travels around and sees the plight of his fellow slaves, he has enough and turns to other Biblical passages instead. He favors the Old Testament and the stories of God’s people slaughtering uncountable thousands in the Lord’s name. These passages fuel his rebellion. The film is a good example of the various ways God’s word can be used to serve whatever ends a person desires.

The Birth of a Nation made waves at Sundance this year, receiving a standing ovation at its premiere before the film even started. It sold later that night for more money than any film at any festival ever ($17.5M). People are talking about the Oscars even though 2016 is only twenty-eight days old as I write this. You’ll almost certainly be hearing more about this film. You’ll probably want to see it out of curiosity, out of celebration, or out of a sense of obligation, as if often the case with films about American slavery. (These sentiments account for the pre-screening standing ovation, I believe. Black Americans have good reason to celebrate prestigious films about black Americans in history. White Americans have good reason to feel guilty about slavery and to want to make amends however they can.)

Surprisingly, The Birth of a Nation is basically Braveheart in the Antebellum South. Most of the Scottish epic’s story beats are here – precocious youngster trained by “nobility” rediscovers the plight of his own people, falls in love, sees that loved one abused by those in power, is brutalized himself, and decides to do something about it. That “something” is to lead a violent revolt. Speeches are made. Battles are won and lost. One lover encounters the other in a ghostly form. Our hero is made into a martyr.

Because The Birth of a Nation echoes Braveheart, it also echoes Braveheart’s troubling violence-affirming ethics. Granted, Turner’s Rebellion happened long before non-violent resistance became a viable means of enacting social change, and Virginia’s slaves didn’t have any other option. They fought gun-wielding militias with farming implements. There’s courage in that. But their rebellion didn’t accomplish what they hoped. Rather, it led to masses of slaves being killed across the South who had nothing to do with the rebellion. “Those who live by the sword, die by it,” Turner’s wife reminds him at one point. She was right.The Birth of a Nation is better than Braveheart in that respect, because it at least features characters struggling with the moral weight of their actions.

I do understand the urge to make a hero out of Nat Turner though. He did something when no one else was doing anything. His rebellion helped make it clear that slavery was a untenable part of American life. His example of looking to the Bible for inspiration and refusing to be subjugated any longer is something anyone struggling against injustice can look to for hope.

Once again, The Birth of a Nation was picked up by Fox Searchlight for more money than anyone has ever paid for a film at a festival. You’ll get a chance to see it before the year is through.