Trailer Talk – The Birth of a Nation

A new trailer for The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s biopic about Nat Turner, the preacher and leader of a Virginia slave rebellion in 1831, released today. The film won the Grand Jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic competition and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I reviewed the film at Sundance, as well as did a few of the students in our class at the Windrider Forum. The Birth of a Nation set a record at Sundance for the largest sum paid for a film in history when it sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5M. The film is set to be released October 7 nationwide.

In these Trailer Talks, I typically consider what the trailer suggests to us about an upcoming film based on how the trailer uses cinematic conventions like cinematography, editing, story, and music. Before, I’ve never seen the films in question, so my observations are untainted by prior knowledge. Part of the fun is seeing the full films later and seeing how well the trailer matched up to reality. I’ve seen The Birth of a Nation, so this is a unique experiment. Can I distinguish between what the trailer is telling me about the film and what I know?

It helps that this movie is based on true events. The history of Nat Turner’s life and slave rebellion is well known. He was a preacher on behalf of slave owners to slaves, and he eventually decided that a violent rebellion was the slaves’ best option for gaining freedom. The trailer tells this story as well, leading off with a montage of Turner preaching and praying for slaves and slave owners while observing the plight of his fellow slaves. During this part of the trailer, Turner preaches subjugation, using the Bible to support slavery. Then the trailer pivots and shows a similar montage of Turner’s slave rebellion as his rhetoric heats up and becomes more violent. In this section, Turner shifts to using the Bible to support liberation. The first-half images are cold and rather still; the second-half features fire and running predominantly.

As in other trailers, music plays a key role here. The first half is scored by Nina Simon’s aching rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a song written originally as a poem in 1936 by Able Meeropol to protest contemporary lynching. The song connects us to the history of racism in America, not just to slavery in the antebellum South. Then, as Nat Turner preaches, “Brethren, I pray you sing a new song,” the soundtrack switches to African drums and wind instruments, suggesting a more ancient spirit kindling in the hearts of Nat Turner and his fellow slaves. This African music carries through to the end of the trailer.

This juxtaposition of theologies of subjugation and liberation in the two halves of the trailer along with the two different scores position The Birth of a Nation as a conflict between enculturated theologies. These theologies are embodied by Nat Turner in both halves. The trailer makes The Birth of a Nation appear to be an awakening of fundamental humanity in the person of Nat Turner. The Bible appears to be a thing that can be used for subjugation or liberation depending on what’s alive in the person reading it. The film looks fascinating.

Now, this is the part of a Trailer Talk where I’d say, “Is it? We’ll see. The Birth of a Nation releases nationwide October 7.” But I’ve already seen this film, so I can say confidently that this trailer does the movie justice. It promises something the movie can deliver. You’ll get to see that for yourself soon.