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.