Why Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Is an Epic Triumph

"The Birth of a Nation"

“The Birth of a Nation” (Fox Searchlight)

That I should call this film a masterpiece simply because it does not burden the viewer with a White savior character as a means of letting guilty White viewers “off the hook” when it comes to a cinematic representation of the horrible and inexcusable institution of slavery, would be as bold a political statement as openly praising the film would be in today’s climate of hostility and accusations of immorality being cast against its director and star, Nate Parker.

So let me be so politically bold and state directly that: I am praising the film “The Birth of a Nation” by Nate Parker and I intend to hail it as a masterpiece not only for its absence of a White savior character, but also for the film’s rich dramatic complexity, its calculated restraint in performances, its moments of visually arresting images and the dark foreshadowing of dread concerning the failed, violent collective attempt at liberation from slavery that seeps into nearly every scene, before it ever happens within the film.

What is truly fascinating throughout “The Birth of a Nation” is the duality of the use of biblical scripture as a justification for slavery by Whites that, in turn, was used as a sedative for enslaved Blacks to stave off violent insurrection against White slave owners. In the film, it is Nat Turner’s ability to preach from the Bible that is co-opted by Whites as a means of sedating their mistreated, abused and spiritually broken Black slaves. Nat Turner’s ‘exceptional’ position as an itinerant Black preacher demonstrates how White slave owners were perverting the Christian religion to keep Blacks dominated and docile (by emphasizing loyalty, servitude, and peace in the afterlife), and how Blacks, in particular Nat Turner, were using the Christian religion as a coded form of resistance against White supremacy and slavery (by emphasizing retribution, freedom and violent usurpation of the oppressor). This is the real genius of Nate Parker’s screenplay and the story he worked on with co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, that they were both able to recognize how biblical scripture was being used in different ways by the oppressor and the oppressed. The duality in the use of biblical scripture is what subsequently reveals to us how the real Nat Turner may have been inspired to incite a collective rebellion by re-interpreting and re-coding biblical scripture to, in effect, return the “Word of God” back to its original revolutionary purpose. For the Bible may not be simply a peace and prosperity text as some televised evangelists (e.g. Joel Olsteen, Creflo Dollar…) would lead us to believe, but instead it could perhaps be a revolutionary text that was meant to inspire men to fight against human oppression and inequality in the here and now.(1) Nate Parker succinctly states this revolutionary potential of biblical scripture as Nat Turner in the film, when he says: “For every verse they use to justify slavery, I find another verse that justifies our freedom.”




In “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker gives us a vision of Nat Turner as the dialectical synthesis of this dual interpretation of biblical scripture: Between scripture as a justification for slavery and scripture as a justification for all Men’s freedom comes a Black martyr who inspired collective action against racial oppression: His name was Nat Turner. Not since Pier Paolo Pasolini’s magnificent 1964 near literal adaptation of “The Gospel According the Saint Matthew,” has a filmmaker so deftly stripped away the modern status quo interpretations of the Bible to reveal its actual revolutionary underpinnings (2); Parker has done a similar feat of revealing the revolutionary potential of biblical scripture as it was reinterpreted by a Black man in this film – with a sword – so to speak.

Another intriguing aspect of the film is the seductive and calculated emotional restraint displayed throughout – not in the effort to make the horrific experiences of slavery more tolerable for the modern viewer, but instead to show what critic Hannah Arendt has called, ”The banality of evil”. We find such a ‘banality of evil’ operating in the same habitual fashion during the long era of slavery in the United States. That is to say, during this era, the buying and selling of Black bodies by Whites was a normalized state of existence; abject brutality was merely a physical means to a capitalist end to help the plantation run efficiently; pleasure in the form of rape of the Black female was just another iteration of the oppressor’s total access to the Black subjugated body. Families were ripped apart; father’s and mother’s lynched; children raped and sold – not just for the sadistic pleasure (although this was a component for sure), but these actions were done to keep clear blood lines from taking root among the slaves (the very antithesis of how aristocracies were built and maintained). (3) Such inhuman cruelty was performed by Whites to insure that Blacks would be related to each other, not by blood, but instead by inescapable oppression, misery, domination and illiteracy.

Only after Nat Turner is taught to read the Bible by the White slave owner’s wife who promptly takes him from his mother, does Nat Turner later as an adult begin to fully comprehend the enormity of the circumstances that he and all other Black slaves are immersed within: A lattice work of evil and injustice from which no one Black man can be liberated unless all Black people are liberated. To better reveal the banality of this lattice work of evil and injustice, Parker has directed a film that resigns itself from open histrionics and maudlin tears that we have commonly associated with representation of slavery in the cinema. This continued emotional restraint that signifies the depth of suffering as a general existential condition of these oppressed Black people, culminates in the brutal whipping scene of Nat Turner that he suffers through in silent indignation, with only his face betraying a martyr’s ecstasy in pain.

One could also say that “The Birth of a Nation” is a masterpiece because it can be understood through the lens of the “Black Lives Matter” movement in that some scenes of this film set in the past, whether Parker intended or not, can have the unjust actions within them traced forwards to the horrible murders and unanswered injustices that are happening to us as Black people now in our own times. For example, early in the film, a Black man has to steal food so that his family might have something to eat, but he is caught on the road by several whites who interrogate him roughly with guns drawn. They order him to stop moving, to identify himself, to hold up his hands, to kneel, to turn his back and to show his “pass”. All of these demands that are set in the past speak to how Black people are continually treated today when they are stopped on the road by the police (be they White, Black or White aspiring ethnicities). Thus, the slave catchers and slave patrols on the plantation in the antebellum era were the very prototypes of the law enforcement officers of today who feel that if a Black person resists their orders to submit their bodies totally to inspection and/or if a Black person refuses to constrict their personality to display complete docility and deference, then these police officers feel they have a right to shoot and kill that Black person with no recrimination, accountability, or even loss of pay. Any Black resistance to White authority is a threat and the great fear of the White majority.

In this early scene, Parker seems to demonstrate in a historical context that the deliberate economic oppression of Black people constructed and maintained by the dominant White society and its institutions contribute to the “crimes of survival” committed by Blacks that are then used against Blacks as both a justification for their inferiority and the need to execute and/or reduce Blacks to slave status by imprisonment. All of these “legal” judgments, processes and procedures against Black people are adjudicated by Whites and non-White sympathizers comfortably ensconced in their seats of power and privilege. In another scene a runaway Black slave’s dead body is left on the side of the road as a symbol of White power, evoking the sickening image of Michael Brown’s dead body left uncovered for hours on the road, under the hot August sun in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, as a stark symbol of White power in our times.

25 Comments

  1. Should have suspected a rave from you. But you so rarely state what you appreciate. Always finding the white-wrong in black film even when black people are at the helm writing and directing.

  2. This may be the best thing I’ve read in years. Perfectly written. Thank you.

  3. What are your thoughts on her critique of the representation of Black women in the film? It was another major part of her article.

    • To be honest I have very few thoughts on her critique of the representation of Black women in the film because I think in her zeal to tear down the film she over reached in her analysis and misrepresented the details in the film. For instance, she states that Gabrielle Union has no dialogue within the film and that is absolutely not true. Her assertion that the rape of the Black female in the film is done in an attempt to redeem Black masculinity is a troubling and circumspect accusation because it attempts to turn our attention away from the depiction of an attempt at Black collective liberation from White oppression towards a petty critique of patriarchy which is not the subject, theme or intention of this film. While I will concede that perhaps the Black women characters may have been underplayed, it certainly wasn’t for the explicit purpose of redeeming Black masculinity. Dr. Anderson is critiquing the moral character of the director in her diatribe against the film for her perception of his shortcomings regarding his acquittal of rape charges 17 years ago, but she is not actually critiquing the film, in my opinion.

      • Well written! I’ve read critiques of the film that also seem to be more of a critique of Nate Parker’s past than the film. This is very problematic and greatly reduces my trust for the critic if they are unable or unwilling to separate their judgements about who they think someone is from the art that the person has created.

        If they cannot be objective about Nate Parker’s art but are willing to do so with other actors/entertainers who also have checkered pasts, that heightens my suspicions that other malicious agendas being pushed.

  4. The film makes up a rape that never happened. Why are Black women’s bodies always used as a plot device?

    • If you are somehow implying that Black women were not raped by White men during the era of slavery then I think you are woefully misinformed. If you are faulting Nate Parker for taking dramatic licence and adding details to his film that are consonant with the historical era, but not specific to what has been written about Nat Turner, then I would like to extend the argument I am making in this piece on the film: It is disingenuous to hold on to the double standard that Black filmmakers cannot have the same artistic freedom of dramatic license as White filmmakers when making historical films. If Gary Ross can falsely take the subject of Black female rape out of his slavery era film The Free State of Jones then I see no reason why Nate Parker should be negatively critiqued for including it in his historical film. The rape of Black females by White slave owners in films about the era of slavery is not a plot device it is the dramatization of a real human tragedy that was commonplace under the horrible and inhuman oppression of slavery in this country. The seeds of rape culture were sown in this era. The inclusion of rape in The Birth of A Nation is a historically valid detail even if it is not specific to what has been written or recorded about the real Nat Turner and in no way diminishes the achievement of this film.

      • I agree. Little boys were raped too, but you never see that. Pedophilia is not just a twentieth century phenomenon. I’m tired of Black men using Black women’s bodies to justify their desire for White women.
        Nate Parker, accused of raping a White woman, and is married to a White woman, is the epitome of the original D.W. Griffieth “Birth of A Nation.
        Our hero Nat Turner deserved better!

        • You “agree” and then go off on a tangent about your personal hang-ups. What does inclusion of the rape in this film’s narrative have to do with whoever black men sleep with? Not everything is an invitation to bring up grievances through false equivalences.

      • I am implying as most historians would agree that the rape for this film was made up. That was not the catalyst for the rebellion. Why use our bodies as a device? The story would have just been as powerful without having to interject something that did not happen. We all know women who were enslaved were raped. Women are raped by men everyday in every part of the world! I am just very curious as to why a man who has committed rape himself was so eager to direct a graphic rape scene(which was cut down) that never happened.

        • Exactly, guys stop using rape to further the male protagonists goals and push the story forward. It’s played out (like nate’s acting). Take some writing classes Nate.

      • To her point, historically speaking, rape wasn’t the motivation for the revolt. Slavery was. Slavery was THE sin worth killing/dying for … not one of them. Nat Turner’s story beautifully displays that self awareness, which is in stark contrast to the passive pie in the sky propaganda that’s poisoned our collective views of our enslaved ancestors. By making a fictional rape the catalyst for the revolt, it undermines the notion that slavery was an indictment of the collective black body. It instead it muddies the waters, preys on the powerlessness of black women, and taps into notions of the macho male hero figure, rather than highlighting the collective revolutionary spirit that existed in every slave.

        • The real problem here is that you are accepting a false interpretation of Parker’s film- the rape of Nat Turner’s wife (implied only by the savagery of beating she received at the hands of three White man which itself further complicates the certainty that she was raped) was not given as the sole catalyst for him leading the revolt. The brutal beating of his wife in the film was the tipping point to a long list of injustices and racially motivated brutalities that helped him decide to lead the revolt. By framing the interpretation of why Nat Turner revolted in the film as being solely caused by his wife’s beating/rape the original commentator is falsely interpretating the film to further a Nate Parker bashing agenda. Whether one accepts that the film shows Nat Turner’s wife as being raped and beaten or just beaten- it was not the sole catalyst for his actions and cannot be reduced to a mere “plot device”. The film, as well as the time period it explores, is much more complex.

          • Andre, thank you for this reply. Since I have not seen the film, I’ve been tip-toeing through the comments in an effort to not read spoilers. That said, some comments were implying that a rape scene was the sole catalyst for the revolt. So I was thinking, even though this is Nate Parker’s film (in many ways), he would not have used that event as the sole reason for those in bondage to engage in a uprising. Nope, I couldn’t see any director – one just out of the gate or not – employing such a rudimentary plot device. So again, thanks for the clarification.

            I don’t know when I’ll see the movie ( I plan to) but aside from the “message” that may be harvest from it, I am yet to hear/read anything specific about the performances, action or storytelling that would compel me to rush to see it.

            Look, I’ve said this before but I believe it fits right now. I’ve come to believe that a journey shared with another, is more deeply moving an experience than a journey taken alone. Consequently, I have acquired a serious love of watching movies as a form of escape with my lady.

            Not only do we escape, movie watching affords us the opportunity to visit emotions, sights and sounds – much like reading books – that we may not have otherwise experienced. So tell me, other than the alleged messages one might receive from watching “Nation”, talk to the movie watcher in me.

  5. Be so glad when this movie come, go and ride off in the sunset with Nate Parker and his wife.

  6. Very well presented – – honest, grounded, bold, liberating…keep up the great work you guys are doing…the community film artists here in Augusta, GA are paying attention…we are listening.

  7. As a current student in a Master of Arts program with a specialization in Filmaking, I am very impressed with your critique. You have changed my mind. I will see the film. This is the first critique I have read of the film.

  8. I’m a black female and saw the film. I’m a huge film goer. Honestly, I thought this film was mediocre. I was not impressed with it, as I thought it would be more powerful from the trailers. It is a fine attempt for a first time director – Nate Parker. However, I think he was wearing too many hats for this film… Director, producer, actor, and writer. I truly believe you can’t be objective in all aspects of the film, if you’re in charge of all those roles. The film I’d rate it a solid C+.

  9. A few more points you didn’t mention. I really wondered why the Nat Turner revolt was a mere 48 hours. Given the short term nature in which he had to organise the white fatalities should have been much higher. The logistics of distance (between plantations) and lack of instant communication were strongly in his favor. The only real giveaway to what was going on were the fires and sporadic musket gunfire. The one key scene in which a white sympathizer essentially ended the element of surprise and the revolt. It’s those particular individuals that hinder all pro-black movements. Did COINTELPRO get it’s information from internal investigations or from a plea bargain agreement.
    The other point I want to bring up is the cold ending. Not since films from the 1970’s have gritty realistic endings been embraced. To really drive home the brutality of slavery. He should have shown his body being quartered and skinned. It would have further justified his actions. As it stands our freedom was granted. Any black insurrection will be down played and neutered.

  10. Wonderfully presented piece and not a moment too soon. I wonder how long the tastemakers will remain hidden and silent. Where are the educators, activists, producers, directors, artists and self-congratulating Twitter mavens who spend every day holding up their latest projects, film festivals, web series and power couplings? Where is all the fist pumping and chest thumping for this work?

    Hollywood and the guardians of the white power dynamic (ably assisted by no small number of Black folks who allowed themselves to be distracted) have successfully derailed this film’s immediate economic success. What they cannot do is prevent Black and brown people from seeking out this work and ingesting the messages it offers- and I think they will. Yes, the white man won this battle to diminish and subvert, but in the long run people will see this film and understand why it scares the hell out of the caretakers and beneficiaries of white supremacy.

    So, kudos to you Mr. Seewood and thank you for taking the time to address the embarrassing piece penned by Dr. Alexander.

    And for those who still insist on being confused about tone and genre- Nat Turner was a freedom fighter and a story about Nat Turner is not a story about slavery- it’s a story about freedom. From the first frame of this film to the last Nat Turner is presented as a man intent on being free- not a man defined by enslavement or circumstances.

    You should want to be free and you should want to see this film.

  11. You nailed it Andre and the reality of this whole smear campaign is to diminish the POWER that “THE BIRTH OF A NATION” unleashes to inspire Black People to maintain and preserve. That’s the elephant in the room – “TOO BLACK, TOO STRONG!” It’s shameful how many of us play right into our own demise. Blessings to Nate Parker, Cast and Crew!

    Reginald T. Dorsey
    Filmmaker/Actor

  12. The film is incredible, really powerful yet also painful. It is a roller coaster of emotions but that is what good filmmaking is about. As I sat in the theatre Nate Parker’s past never crossed my mind, but that does not mean that his issue is not relevant. I saw him on a talk show and he indicated that the story, the history and the legacy of slavery is much bigger than him, I agree. The film was incredible. Much respect for Nate Parker as a gifted filmmaker.

  13. The film was ok, another Sundance overhype with some blk folk cinema-therapy and adulation sprinkled on top.

    The ahistorical critique is important bc the written account – a prophetic visionary, who saw himself the righteous Patriot tasked by God, who survived on the run for 6 weeks +after + the rebellion ended, is a stronger story than the one Parker chose to spin.

    I felt the writing and speeches given for turner should have been stronger as well.

    Eh. Ok for a 1st timer on a small budget, I guess. Glad that the tix I bought before going in the theater were for queen of Katwe instead

  14. I always enjoy Mr. Seewood’s insightful, authoritative, well-researched work. He is spot on in all of his observations related to film, culture, morality, and the subjagation of blacks and black bodies in America.

    I saw “Birth of a Nation,” a few weeks ago, and avoided reading any reviews or articles about it until afterward. This is the only one I have read and will read. As a black woman I strongly agree with his argument that some in our community have held Mr. Parker to a double-standard, regarding past ALLEGATIONS.

    Woody Allen continues to get a pass, and praise from Hollywood. And well-known white actors are lined up to work for him, and would do so for free. The same goes for Roman Polanski.
    The only person with the balls to call him out is Mia Farrow.
    Oh, but I forgot, we live in the United States of Amnesia, full of sheep and illiterates who eat the *S^%T they are fed, while ignoring well-reasoned, educated, writing like this brilliant text, deconstructed by Mr. Seewood.

    This movie is a masterpiece. I am disappointed in all people, but particularly our people, that more support wasn’t thrown behind this film. It is Oscar worthy for so many technical categories, as well as original screenplay, direction, best actor, and best supporting actress (Naomi Aja King).

    Bravo! Mr. Seewood.

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