Aunjanue Ellis and Director/Producer/Writer Nate Parker on the set of The Birth of a Nation. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu. Twentienth Century Fox FIlm Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Nate Parker, the director, co-writer, and star of the riveting new film The Birth of a Nation, opens with Thomas Jefferson’s anti-slavery quote: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
After a screening of the film, total strangers and friends alike milled about Fox’s studio lot, discussing this knockout punch by Parker, who co-starred in 2007’s The Great Debaters, which won the first Progie Award for Best Progressive Picture.
“I’m stunned . . . still quite emotional,” said Evelia Jones, a direct descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, who wept during the almost two-hour film.
Like his fellow Virginian Jefferson, Nat Turner was an American revolutionary and Parker’s powerful biopic securely places the rebel slave in the pantheon of freedom fighters. Of course, unlike Monticello’s privileged master, born in 1800, Turner was a field hand on a plantation in Southampton County, Virginia.
As the film opens, we see a young Nat, played by Tony Espinosa, undergoing what seems to be a traditional African ritual and being “anointed” as a prophet, “ordained for some great purpose,” as Turner supposedly related in his jailhouse Confessions to Thomas Gray. Religious symbolism recurs throughout Birth, with references to both Christianity and Ghana’s pre-Western faith.
Little Nat plays with the master’s white son, Samuel, and when he demonstrates an aptitude for reading, the plantation’s mistress, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller, whose credits include 2012’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist and John Ridley’s 2015 American Crime TV series) teaches him how. But inside the Big House’s library, Elizabeth uses the Bible as her text and admonishes Nat that certain other books are restricted for whites only.
After the master’s death, literate Nat is returned to the plantation’s fields, where he pricks his finger picking plants, his blood symbolically dripping on fluffy white cotton. Here, the adult Nat appears onscreen, portrayed by Parker himself. The movie masterfully portrays the dehumanization, horrors, and atrocities of forced servitude inflicted by the “peculiar institution” on those considered by law to be only three-fifths human.
In the course of events, the humanity and tenderness of Nate’s Nat is revealed, as he outsmarts his master Samuel (J. Edgar co-star Armie Hammer, great-grandson of Occidental Petroleum billionaire Armand Hammer) to rescue an enslaved young black female called Cherry (Aja Naomi King) from being sold to rapacious white men. Nat goes on to marry Cherry in one of Birth’s few happy scenes (a key correction, as Turner’s marriage is ignored in William Styron’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that depicts Nat lusting after a Southern belle).
As the Southern economy experiences hard times circa 1830, Samuel rents Nat out as a sort of roving preacher, exploiting his literacy and Biblical expertise. He preaches a Gospel to restive slaves, extolling servility as God’s will. But a series of events causes Nat to change. He witnesses unbearable brutality, as whites savagely assault and probably rape Cherry; Samuel forces a field hand’s wife to have sex with another slave owner; and, for baptizing a white man, Nat himself is viciously whipped, his arms outstretched Christ-like on a post like he’s being crucified.
All this propels thirty-one-year-old Nat to take a liberation theology interpretation of the Bible, in which the wretched of the Earth rise up against oppression. Believing himself to be an instrument of God, Nat awaits a celestial sign—and after seeing an eclipse of the sun, surreptitiously gathers a handful of followers in the woods, quoting Jesus to them: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
The Black Spartacuses arise August 21, 1831. For about two days, a growing army of freed slaves wielding hatchets, swords and guns kill about sixty whites, including women and children. Parker’s camera doesn’t dwell on the females and minors murdered during the rebellion, nor does the film deny the rebels’ terrible toll. (Tellingly, benevolent Elizabeth is spared.)
Once the rebellion is inevitably crushed, hundreds of innocent blacks are lynched in a harrowing sequence accompanied by Billie Holiday’s classic “Strange Fruit.” After more than two months in hiding, Nat surrenders—ostensibly to stop his people’s slaughter. As Nat is led to the gallows, he’s accosted by enraged whites. Nevertheless, Parker ends his film on a triumphant note, indicating revolution is permanent.
Artworks are often coded chronicles, commenting on current affairs. In Birth of A Nation press notes, Parker says, “if you look at the history of how Southern police departments developed out of slave patrols—then you can better understand and analyze where we are now.” Although Birth is set 185 years ago, Parker’s directorial debut is clearly critiquing America’s current state of race relations, including killings by police.
Parker's debut has also been shadowed by a backstory—seventeen-year-old rape charges against Parker and the film's co-writer, Jean Celestin. Parker, nineteen at the time, was found not guilty, Celestin’s conviction was ultimately overturned. Court documents show that the woman said she was harassed by Parker and Celestin after she reported the incident to the police. She dropped out of college soon after the incident, and, many years later, committed suicide.
And yet Parker’s film stabs at the very heart of the most pernicious celluloid stereotypes, which are front and center in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 pro-Ku Klux Klan movie The Birth of a Nation. In that film, African American males are portrayed (by white actors in blackface) as brutal rapists. In one Reconstruction-era scene, a lusty freed slave chases a Southern belle, who leaps off a cliff rather than succumb to rape. At the end, the KKK rides to the rescue of silent screen superstar Lillian Gish, who is being menaced by a would-be “mulatto” rapist.
Parker’s appropriation of Griffith’s title may be the single most audacious thing about his latter day The Birth of a Nation. It is part of the ongoing black cinematic surge deconstructing America’s legacy of slavery and racism, including12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Selma, Straight Outta Compton, Queen of Katwe, 13th, and Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. Call this trend to replace caricatures with greater authenticity and accuracy cinema’s "Deconstruction Era." Birth has garnered Oscar buzz after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million—a Sundance record—for distribution rights.
Like Jefferson and Turner, Parker was Virginia-born—yet, in press notes, he asks: “How is it possible that I didn’t know about” Nat’s rebellion, which had “happened right in my backyard”? When Griffith screened his The Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson reportedly called it “history written with lightning.” Nate Parker’s brilliant re-Birth is history rewritten with starlight.
The Birth of a Nation opens Oct. 7.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.