The Birth of a Nation

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I know that a lot of people in the US have boycotted this film because of rape allegations against Nate Parker, the lead actor and director, but I thought that, because the film itself covers a topic of such historical importance, it deserved to be seen. Nat Turner’s Rebellion, in 1831, was an uprising of slaves, led – as the name suggests by Nat Turner, in Southampton County, Virginia. 55-65 white people were killed, and 56 slaves were executed.

In the aftermath, up to 200 black people, slaves and free blacks, who had not been involved in the rebellion, were killed by lynch mobs and militias, and legislation was passed across the slaveholding states, against the education of both free blacks and slaves, and restricting the rights to assembly – even for religious services – for free black people. Then there were the psychological effects. The fear, especially in states like South Carolina where blacks outnumbered whites, of black violence against whites, made many slave owners all the more reluctant to consider emancipation. It’s worth bearing in mind that this happened shortly before slavery in the British Empire was brought to an end by the paying off of slaveowners: amoral as that seems now, at least it meant that slavery was abolished, and without a bloodbath. In the southern states of the US, attitudes towards slavery just hardened even further.

So, in summary, the uprising tragically backfired. The 1791 slave uprising in what’s now Haiti succeeded, but was almost unique in doing so. And the Nat Turner Rebellion doesn’t seem to have been very carefully planned: the Denmark Vesey Rebellion of 1822 was probably better planned … although that was uncovered and suppressed before it could take place.

Obviously this is a very sensitive and divisive subject, given that, over 150 years after emancipation, there are, sadly, still such pronounced racial tensions in the US. And the film is intended to show that this was an uprising of oppressed against oppressor. Obviously it was, but the film’s perhaps trying so hard to show this that it doesn’t give a balanced view of events – there are some very complex questions arising from the events depicted, and they don’t come across as well as they might have done. Some oversimplification – for example, showing Nat Turner as living on the same plantation all his life, which he didn’t – can be forgiven, but other things are more questionable.

Turner was a religious fanatic. The film does make some attempt to show this – and it’s not an easy thing to show on film – but he comes across in this as a very pleasant, genial man, whose views on life changed and hardened due to the brutal sights he witnessed on neighbouring plantations to which he was hired out as a preacher, and the rape of his wife and a friend’s wife by white men. It’s not at all clear whether the incidents shown actually took place. Having said which, they aren’t atypical of the treatment of slaves by owners … but they don’t really get across the message that Nat Turner seems to have thought of himself as some sort of Messiah, rather than acting from more rational motives. Questions have also been raised over the film’s failure to show the rapes from the point of view of the women themselves, only from that of their husbands. The focus is all on Nat Turner himself: other people don’t really get much of a look-in

And the actual rebellion doesn’t take up much of the film at all. There’s a lot about Turner’s childhood. That’s worth seeing because the young lad who plays him as a child, Tony Espinosa, does a superb job, and also because, but surely the main focus should have been on the rebellion itself? Then, when the rebellion scenes come, the viewer sees the rebels killing the man who raped Turner’s friend’s wife, and killing the brutal neighbour who chained up and tortured his slaves, but there’s no mention of all the women and children whom the rebels killed. Did the horrific atrocities carried out by the Nazis make it OK for the Red Army to go rampaging round Germany and Austria, raping every woman and girl they could get their hands on? Did the inequalities of ancient regime France make it OK for the architects of the Terror to carry out mass guillotinings? Did the oppression of the Tsarist regime in Russia make it OK for the Bolsheviks to kill the Tsar’s children and other relatives? Did the killings of white people by Nat Turner and his supporters make it OK for lynch mobs and militias to murder black people who hadn’t even had anything to do with the rebellion? No. Did the evils of slavery make it OK for Nat Turner and his supporters to kill all the white people they came across? No: that wasn’t OK either.

And, because the focus is all on Nat Turner – maybe that’s more to do with Nate Parker wanting to take centre stage than anything else! – the film ends with his execution, and doesn’t really cover the aftermath except in a brief note. Surely a few scenes showing the forbidding of the education of both slaves and free blacks, and the suppression of the rights of free blacks, could have been included?

But this is a neglected part of American history, and a story that deserves to be told. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding this film, because of the allegations against Nate Parker and because the film seems to have got caught up in the minds of the press with the row over alleged racism in Oscar nominations. It’s not the best film ever, either from a general filmgoer’s point of view or from a historian’s point of view. But the story of Nat Turner’s Rebellion is an important one, and it’ll be a great shame if the external controversies surrounding this film mean that the film doesn’t earn the attention for the events of 1831 that it aims to.

2 thoughts on “The Birth of a Nation

    • I assume that was the point of deliberately picking the same name :-). Both films were very obviously meant as statements about race and politics … it’s quite understandable that Nate Parker should have wanted to do that, but it would have been nice to see a film that was completely unbiased. Thank you :-).

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