D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation opened to both protest and critical acclaim in 1915. Griffith’s film captivated audiences at a time when Ku Klux Klan membership was on the rise, expanding immigrant populations frightened white Americans, a war in Europe daily threw into sharp relief the pitfalls of empire, Jim Crow firmly took root, and racial violence abounded. The NAACP launched national protest against the film and boldly called out its racist depictions of African Americans, often played by white actors in blackface. The Klansman, the novel on which the movie was based, was already a popular play. Griffith’s work turned the literary and dramatic hit into a blockbuster. His close-ups, split screens, and innovative editing techniques brought to life the fears of America’s WASPS: sexually violent black predators, immigrant outsiders (carpetbaggers) who may upend long held power structures, and those in their midst who may collude to destroy white supremacy. Of course, the film also brought to life their fantasies: happy slaves, chivalrous simpler times, damsels in distress rescued by dashing heroes in Klan robes, and, ultimately, the triumph of God-ordained racial hierarchy. Jesus even makes a cameo at the movie’s end to emphasize the importance of Jim Crow racial subjugation. Griffith held up the Klan as the saviors of American democracy, white womanhood, and the vanquishers of errant black equality.
Now, one hundred years later, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation purposefully gestures towards Griffith’s myth-making. Much like its namesake, Parker’s film also arrives nationwide in precarious times—amid years of dissent against police brutality, mass incarceration, the racist policies of the War on Drugs, and institutional racism. Popular culture is having a moment with American slavery that is almost certainly related to public discourse about race and racism. Television’s Underground and recent reboot of Roots broadcast well-researched but popular fictional narratives about slavery, incorporating the work of historians in recent decades. Twelve Years a Slave (2013), Belle (2013), and even The Free State of Jones (2016), each explore aspects of slavery, racial politics, and the relation of both to the narrative of American history for mainstream movie audiences.
But, as we know too well, one does not need to go to the movies or turn on the television to see the brutalization of black bodies or the loss of black lives. Our newsfeeds and social media remind us, almost daily, that the past continues to echo in the present. In press he’s done for the movie, Parker focuses on the contemporary moment. He has been clear that he desired to make a movie in which a black lead was the hero, in which resistance, not humble endurance, were at the core of the story. Of his choice of title, Parker was quoted in Filmmaker as saying, “I’ve reclaimed this title and repurposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country….” Parker has been very clear that his story attempts to provide a hero amidst depictions of suffering and survival. If Griffith’s work presented a heroic vision for white supremacy, Parker is explicit in the radical potential for his own work.
Griffith based his film on Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Klansman. The marketing campaign for the film, itself an innovation in the then young American film industry, purported that The Birth of a Nation covered the accurate history of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction by dramatizing the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. The movie’s posters featured a striking image of a robed Ku Klux Klan, flaming cross in hand, striking a valiant pose. It promised a “mighty spectacle” and, even now, the film delivers. At the time that the original Birth of a Nation was released, Griffith’s innovative cinematography and epic storytelling led audiences on an odyssey through the “Lost Cause” Southern mythology of the recent past. Moments that the audience, their parents, or grandparents experienced flickered across the screen accompanied by titles that featured the words of Woodrow Wilson, the sitting President. The film was, as Wilson said, “…[W]riting history with lightning.” Now, film students and those, who like myself, study American History, view the film as an important text to analyze and as a study in how the medium of film sears powerful narratives in the public’s historical memory. To some extent historians like myself have a love-hate relationship with historical films because of works like Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. At times film, and the dramatic license allowed the creative teams that brings films to theaters, explores and expresses deeper truths about the past. Of course, all historians have encountered students and lay people who have viewed a film set in the past only to fully absorb inaccuracies as fact.
Mr. Parker does not claim to have made a documentary or even a film devoid of inaccuracies. He explicitly intervenes in a long-standing project to mythologize Nat Turner. From abolitionists to Black Power activists, many generations have used versions of an imagined Nat Turner to serve as symbols for freedom fighting and rebellion. Parker has been always been plain in interviews about the importance of his project and his critique of Hollywood’s well-documented issues with race and racism. When Parker’s movie commanded a historically large distribution deal at Sundance and received early praise, it seemed as if he was delivering on his promise. That said, his plucky indie filmmaking success story has been recently mired in critique—both because of his personal conduct and the film’s many inaccuracies. Parker set out to bring a different kind of “slavery movie” to audiences. And it is different.
The movie opens with Parker’s Nat Turner as a young boy secreted away to a religious ceremony in the woods outside of the bounds of the plantation where he lives as a slave. The scene, in which an older enslaved man blesses the fictional Turner, vaguely referencing Africa, sets the audience up for an epic biographical journey. This is key: the movie is not focused on the story of the Southampton Rebellion. It chronicles Parker’s imagined life story of the rebellion’s leader, Nat Turner. It covers this fictionalized Nat Turner’s journey to adulthood and radical consciousness. There is room for historical license here because the historical Nat Turner’s early life is not well documented. Parker does gesture towards what little the historical Turner revealed about his childhood: his mother and grandmother were important figures in his life. But it is clear from early in the film that Parker’s Nat Turner is at the center of the film and that more often than not, Parker strays from what historians do know about the historical Nat Turner’s life and radicalism.
Instead of reveling in the specificity of place, Parker’s Southampton County is the “every South” of the popular imagination. Some of the very tropes reinforced in Griffith’s film and countless other depictions of antebellum slavery reappear: kindly mistresses, large plantation homes, large slave holdings, and the discrepancy between “good” and “bad” masters. Parker’s Turner grows into adulthood and into his calling to become a lay preacher to his fellow enslaved people, all while belonging to whites who indulge his desire to read and write. As a result, unlike the historical Turner who named the radical politics of his mother and grandmother as the genesis of his radicalism, Parker’s character does not come to radical consciousness until he is exposed to owners who are unlike his own. This exposure happens on an ahistorical preaching tour, orchestrated by his owner as a moneymaking scheme, that places the character in the middle of a number of abusive plantation regimes. As Parker’s Turner witnesses the effects of starvation and torture on fellow enslaved people, he begins to realize right before the audience’s eyes that slavery is intolerable. After a brutal beating for beginning to exhibit his rebellions tendencies, Turner’s owner asks, “Have you learned your lesson, boy?” in a haughty Southern drawl. “Oh yes, sir, I’ve learned,” rasps Turner holding himself upright until his master fades from view. The character’s journey from dutiful preacher to determined leader is complete.
As a dramatic device, this strategy for character development does not accomplish the work that Parker may have wanted it to accomplish. Perhaps the preaching tour was meant to expose the audience to various manifestations of the slave regime. But the plantations that the character Nat Turner visits are very similar. The audience does not meet or come to know new characters that they can invest in at each tour stop. Instead only the lead’s shift from obedience to rebellion is covered. This becomes a hindrance to the pacing and plotting of the movie.
This primer in slavery’s violence, devoid of specificity or human connection through character development outside of the lead, leaves no room for another truth about American slavery: it was always evil. Both in moments of extreme violence, and there were many, and in moments of day-to-day labor and routine: Slavery was awful. There was no respite from its evil, not in childhood, not in moments of joy, and not even in moments of resistance. Being enslaved was reason enough to resist and rebel. And that is what enslaved people did, constantly. In ways small, and on occasion in ways big, enslaved people evaded, subverted, and resisted enslavement. No enslaved person lived to adulthood without participating in and witnessing resistive culture in action. Asking the audience to believe that an enslaved man would need a to meet a Simon Legree-like owner or two to convince him that slavery was evil enough to rebel against is somewhat beyond their suspension of disbelief.
The gratuitous violence against black bodies that the movie graphically depicts as the character Turner winds through the fictional Southampton is more jarring than provocative. While these moments are meant to explain why the character Nat Turner decided to foment rebellion, it is hard not to wonder if the movie focused on the wrong violence. This is especially true when comparing the violence in the film against black bodies to the violence against whites in its final rebellion scenes. While the audience watches as black bodies are starved, lashed, mutilated, and hung, the camera work becomes coy in scenes that depict white deaths. The audience pulls away with the camera from violence against white bodies, most of which are is caught in a wide shots from far away or in rapid combat scenes that do not linger on the wounds of white victims. Unlike Turner’s early life, documents remain extant that testify to the types of violence rebels visited upon slaveholders during the rebellion. They spared no man, woman, or child. Toddlers and infants fell alongside their parents. Slavery was ugly and violent. Resisting slavery was ugly and violent. And the Southampton Rebellion was no exception to this symbiotic brutality. But the nuance of an intimate rebellion that involved enslaved people murdering owners they knew well, sometimes from childhood, does not make it to the big screen here.
Instead, Parker opts for an epic confrontation in a battlefield scene at the movie’s end. In a climactic moment reminiscent of war films like Glory (1989) and The Patriot (2000) and Western shootouts, Parker’s Turner and a group of nameless enslaved men charge headlong at militia. The score swells. Parker’s character locks eyes with a white adversary. They scuffle in hand-to-hand, man-to-man, combat. The movie’s hero wins a personal battle but loses the war to the militia’s overwhelming strength. The audience gets a hero’s charge, a hero’s fight, and a hero’s noble death by hanging when the dust settles. None of this happened in Southampton in August of 1831.
The historical event had a much less definitive end and more dramatic potential. Local militia scattered rebel forces that grew to an estimated fifty enslaved people. Vigilante violence ensued. But local slaveholders, anxious not to lose too much valuable human property, led the effort to imprison and not murder those enslaved people accused of conspiring to rebel. Instead of a definitive battle, the militia went on a manhunt. Southampton’s county court slogged through trial after trial in the local courthouse. Trials ensured that the commonwealth of Virginia would compensate slaveholders for the execution or sale of their rebellious property. And Nat Turner, the rebellion’s leader, remained at large for two months. While rumors flew about his whereabouts and the likelihood that he may rise up again, an archetype was born: the rebellious slave. When a local hunter captured Nat Turner hiding in a dug-out cave near the farm where his was once enslaved in October of 1831, Virginia’s legislators were about to begin debating the merit of abolishing the “peculiar institution” in the commonwealth and the nation was still reeling in shock at the death of nearly sixty white men, women, and children. But the ambiguous conclusion of the Southampton Rebellion, mired in violence, death, and loss, begs more questions than it answers. The Southampton Rebellion didn’t end triumphantly. It echoed.
Nations, and their births, are not made of any single leader. The most contemporary iteration of the Black Freedom struggle is explicitly leader-full and wary of hierarchy in favor of models of community-based leadership that have roots that reach as far back as enslaved resistance. No one believed that Turner himself could have planned or executed the Southampton Rebellion alone in 1831. At the time that D.W. Griffith produced this film’s namesake, Turner’s Rebellion was known as the Southampton Rebellion. Now it seems equally troublesome to lift up an exceptional leader when all documentation points to an exceptional community. The movie’s focus on one enslaved man’s singular genius is at the heart of its issues with pacing, plotting, and character development. Instead of the multifaceted community that must have worked to produce a successful slave rebellion and a successful rebellion leader, the audience gets the story of only one man.
It is true that we need depictions of slavery that move beyond silent suffering, white saviors, and tired tropes from films past. It is important that Parker’s movie got the attention of Fox Searchlight and has garnered an audience. But what should garner the most attention is how our generation reflects on the mistakes and shame of eras past. The abolition of American slavery cost thousands of lives and the commitment and resistance of far reaching communities. That story is herofull and worth telling.