The Birth Of A Nation: The Southampton Insurrection

Landscaped against the antebellum South, Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a slave who can read, write and preach the word of God. His owner Samuel Turner (Armie Harmer) is almost broke and accepts a moneymaking venture in which Nat will preach to unruly slaves on the surrounding plantations and he, the master, will get paid for it. As Nat witnesses numerous atrocities on his travels against himself and other slaves, Nat leads an uprising through the state of Virginia in hope of freedom.

This is pretty good for Parker’s first directing debut, let alone writing, starring and producing. This film has had a mixed bag of reviews and many are saying they’re tired of slave movies despite having more comic book movies (love them) and moneymaking action movies per year. Slave narratives are not as frequent as those types of movies but they more memorable because they make a big splash by asking questions that nobody wants to answer. These types of movies are designed to make audiences feel uncomfortable and The Birth Of A Nation may not have made as a big a splash as 12 Years A Slave but it sure put audiences on edge.

“These books are for white folks” – Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Miller): one of many ideologically harsh lines
(The Birth Of A Nation, Fox Searchlite Pictures)

It’s wonderful seeing a slave movie in which slaves rise up in an effort to gain their own freedom rather than have their freedom given to them. There were many slave rebellions and I’m glad someone has finally made a movie from this angle. Nat Turner was a learned slave who became a preacher to other slaves. Religion is the main theme in this movie and is the main justification of the slave trader throughout the United States and The West Indies, as depicted in the narratives of Solomon Northup, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.

In their American narratives, all three figures criticise the Christianity of The South and how it self-contradicts the religion that it represents. This is a rendition of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic. The performances are strong, its themes are harrowing, and doubly potent in this era of Black Lives Matter. I found this a more emotional watch than Steven McQueen’s sorrowfully brilliant 12 Years A Slave. The Birth Of A Nation brims with a rage that has been brewing for centuries. After Luke Cage and 13TH, this is the latest socially relevant work to criticise the system in 2016.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) and his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) in The Birth Of A Nation
(The Birth Of A Nation, Fox Searchlite Pictures)

We start the movie with a young Nate, learning to read and witnessing the horrors of slavery. He’s also proclaimed to be a leader due to a strange birthmark on his chest. The slave elders show us that he is destined for a higher purpose which leads into a panoramic scenery shot of a Virginian cotton plantation. Shots like that are really beautiful to watch. Twenty years later, we know we’re in for a barrage of blood, brutality and social injustice. The film is slow to start but it soon picks up in the middle act as Parker comes into his own as a preacher.

Samuel Turner (Hammer) is a drunk, and a poor man to his fellow business people. Nat on the other hand, may be a slave, but he’s freer than Sam will ever be. Nat is somewhere in between unity (with his owner) and defiance with other slaves, knowing he’s part of an establishment that is corrupt to the core. As we witness brutal act after brutal act against, the anger in our protagonist rises. The relationship between Sam and Nat, childhood playmates-turned slave and master is a common relationship in those times; it’s a grand depiction of how easily human relationships break within the slave states. The smaller Sam shrinks, the taller Nat grows.

The Southampton Insurrection is about to begin
(The Birth Of A Nation, Fox Searchlite Pictures)

If history is to be taken as complete fact, the rebellion itself was more harsh and deadly than shown in Parker’s film, as many of its victims were women and children, not just archetypal racist slave owners. Slavery was outlawed in 1865 and then came Jim Crow and the Klu Klux Klan. Parker makes a good attempt at trying to show a Black Power-esque slave era. Even if the details are shaky at times, what reigns true is the awfulness of slavery and there were slaves out there that didn’t need a white patriarchy to free them from their bonds.

A polemic biopic, and a good one at that