“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” The Birth of Nation opens with this quote by Thomas Jefferson. It reflects the fundamental moral indefensibility of slavery and the “justice” waiting to be visited upon those who perpetuate it. The movie is about one man’s attempt to bring about that justice.
The Birth of a Nation tells the life story of Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker, who also directed and co-wrote the film), a slave living in Southampton County, Virginia, on the plantation of Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). As a child, his precocious intelligence is noticed by the mistress of the house, Sam’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) and so he is taught to read the Bible — other books are forbidden — before the death of Sam’s father results in the end of his schooling and the beginning of a life in the field, picking cotton.
On tour in the county as a slave preacher, Nat, who saw life as a slave as a terrible, but bearable burden, sees the cruelty and evil of slavery in their rawest forms on plantations where the slaves are literally starving. We meet psychopathic hillbilly slaveowners who force-feed slaves on hunger strike by breaking their teeth with a hammer. Moments later, Nat is forced to “preach” to the emaciated assembly before him, which means he is supposed to read certain approved sections of the Bible, such as 1 Peter 2:18 (“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters”) that offer Scriptural justification for bondage.
These experiences and the brutal rape of Nat’s wife, Cherry (Gabrielle Union), emboldens Nat to think more critically about his situation and most importantly, the religious text that his white owners have asked him to use to justify his enslavement. He performs a radical act: the baptism of a white man who has been turned away from every white minister in the region. This subverts the racial power structure too obviously for the local slaveowners to ignore, who demand that Nat be punished. Sam Turner obliges by having Nat whipped for hours, who emerges from the ordeal a revolutionary. He is sure of his purpose now, and tells his fellow slaves so: “We’ll cut the head from the serpent… we’ll destroy them all.”
The film’s narrative is straightforward and well plotted, and Parker succeeds in the lead role. His physical presence on screen, along with the power of his voice and the strength of his demeanor, convince us we are witnessing the plausible origin story of an American legend. But I think The Birth of a Nation succeeds most in the surreal vignettes interspersed throughout the film that do not directly further the plot, but instead enrich the themes: after the rape of Cherry, a vision of molasses (or is it blood?) overflowing from a corn stalk; after Nat’s childhood anointment as a prophet in a secret nighttime ceremony, dreams of running through the misty forest covered in blue paint, either fleeing from or pursuing a wrinkled, wretched white crone in a black robe.
Even outside of these “visions,” the film stops to breathe at times with strange little moments: while visiting another plantation as a preacher, Nat looks on in shock as a white girl skips around the front porch with a slave girl in tow, her neck on a leash. As the viewer, we are shown this moment in slow-motion, left to contemplate the bizarre darkness of the human heart. And the endless expanse of white cotton, shown as a visual transition from Nat’s boyhood days to his adulthood, is a striking visual reminder of the perverse beauty of the landscape — the fields are epic in their immenseness, until you are reminded with a pan to Nat’s arched back that a human being was forced against his will to harvest their entire width, several times a day.
There is one more sequence that cannot be omitted from any comment on the film. The emotional climax comes after the failure of Nat’s slave revolution, when a montage of horror fills the screen—scenes of slaveowners all over the county murdering both revolutionaries and slave bystanders alike as Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” plays, closing with a zoom out from the Spanish moss of the Southern forest to show five men and women swinging in the Southern breeze.
The Birth of a Nation does what every movie which seeks to depict American slavery must: it finds a human narrative of dignity and resistance within a pervasive system of violence and oppression, while never disguising or hiding the horror of the situation. And it adds an interpretive framework: a meditation on whether God is a God of love or a God of wrath, on whether or when violence is ever morally obligatory, and on how morality fails in a society which clings to religion but seems God-forsaken. And it even provides an oblique reference, if you want to follow it there, to the issues of today: when Nat at first escapes the wave of vengeance, he appears to Cherry in secret, full of expectant joy, only to hear her say: “They killing people everywhere for no reason but being black.” The Birth of a Nation reminds us to critically think about our American society, to seek justice wherever it is lacking, and to honor those who fought for that most American of virtues, liberty: insofar as it achieve these things, it will be remembered as an important and moving film.
— Paul Lindseth