The Birth of a Nation and Nat Turner’s Rebellion

The new movie, Birth of a Nation, opened to disappointing reviews, which was a bit surprising based on the ovations it got at the Sundance Film Festival. While some of the negative reaction could be attributed to earlier rape charges against the film makers, it seems the movie itself is not as good as we were initially led to believe. You can see some commentary herehere, and here. We’re cautioned, “The Birth of a Nation is important insofar as any narrative about slavery, race, or other parts of America’s dark past is. Films in this tradition are valuable because they demand a continued reckoning with a history that’s too easy to forget or gloss over, and they also explore how the impact of that past continues into the present. But the fact that The Birth of a Nation is representatively important as a movie doesn’t mean that it’s good cinema, or even a necessary addition to the genre of stories about slavery.” We find out, “But even as a narrative about slavery in general, The Birth of a Nation doesn’t break any new ground that would make it essential viewing. Rather, the movie retreads some of the same emotional and visual terrain as Roots, 12 Years a Slave, and Django Unchained—and in some cases it does so less artfully. There are familiar tropes: the at once beautiful and devastating scenery of antebellum plantations with lush foliage being toiled by black bodies bent under the watchful eye of an overseer. The frustrating Uncle Tom house slave and the benevolent white benefactor. The commonness of unspeakable cruelty. Parker, it seems, is trying to convey the strength, bravery, and agency of slaves in the face of unimaginable atrocities. Turner’s motivation—solidified during his travels as a preacher to his fellow slaves—becomes answering a moral call to stand up for his brethren and himself. A reading of Turner’s own words reflects far more religious fanaticism than moral imperative. Much of the heart and feeling infused into The Birth of a Nation are of Parker’s own design. And even in these instances, intended to humanize an enigmatic historical figure, the film offers heavy-handed moments of gravitas that come off as trite rather than moving. Despite prominent examples of stories about slavery, the subject—along with the broader issue of race—is still dramatically under-explored and underrepresented in Hollywood, leaving plenty of room for more incisive history-based accounts. In this context, it’s little surprise that The Birth of a Nation received the premature praise and attention it did. Many Hollywood studios, critics, and moviegoers looked at the movie and saw a rare and thus seemingly vital project—one driven by the singular, ambitious artistic vision of black American man. It was hard not to respect the apparent passion behind the film, which was made with much of Parker’s own money and with the help of other black actors and writers.”

Another problem the film has is the history it tells is deeply flawed. While movies are meant to entertain first and not to be accurate documentaries, historians have especially panned this film. See here, here, here, and here. Historian Leslie Alexander tells us, “Parker failed miserably in his mission. Contrary to his promises of ‘historical fidelity,’ Parker created a deeply flawed, historically inaccurate movie that exploits and distorts Nat Turner’s story and the history of slavery in America. Nearly everything in the movie—ranging from Turner’s relationship with his family, to his life as a slave, and even the rebellion itself—is a complete fabrication. Certainly the film contains sprinklings of historical fact, but the bulk of Parker’s story about the rebellion is fictitious: Nat Turner did not murder his owner, nor did he kill a slave patroller. Turner’s rebellion was not betrayed by a young boy, or by anyone else involved in the revolt. To the contrary, the rebels fought until the bitter end. The shootout depicted in Jerusalem, Virginia, never happened, because the rebels were stopped by the militia before they ever reached Jerusalem. The list of inaccuracies, distortions, and fabrications goes on and on.” Patrick Breen tells us, “Parker’s indictment of America’s racist past is powerful in part because it draws upon so much of American history, but its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  Parker made Birth of a Nation the story of America, but in so doing the movie fails to portray what happened in Southampton in 1831. Parts of Nat Turner’s story that do not fit Parker’s story—such as the way that the rebels intentionally targeted women and children, Turner’s inability to kill anyone by his own hand other than Margaret Whitehead, the impotence of a slave rebel army that did not actually make it ten miles to Jerusalem, and Turner’s ultimate surrender when he was discovered ‘in a little hole’ not far from where the revolt began—are left out of the film entirely. Other parts of Parker’s indictment against America describe other places but not Nat Turner’s Virginia.  For example, the indiscriminate lynching that Parker notes led to hundreds of deaths in Southampton actually did not happen.  In Southampton, slaves were the most valuable form of property and tax records reveal that whites killed roughly three dozen slaves as the revolt was put down.  Some of these murdered blacks were surely innocent, but the rebels force numbered about sixty at its peak, which suggests that the vast majority of those killed after the revolt were in fact rebels or their allies.  There was, not surprisingly, a great deal of anger at blacks after the revolt.  One white correspondent noted that another revolt would lead to ‘the total extermination of their race in the southern country,’ but Southampton’s slaveholders—recognizing the danger that enraged whites posed to their wealth—did everything that they could to stop the indiscriminate killings. Even the most controversial decision of the director—given Parker’s own history of trial for and acquittal of rape and sexual assault—to use rape as the trigger for the revolt does not fit the evidence.  According to the movie, Samuel Turner, the man who is presented as Turner’s master and his first victim, well deserved Turner’s hatchet in his chest because he pimped Turner’s best friend’s wife to another man.  This marked the ultimate debasement of the slaveholder who first appeared in Birth Of A Nation as a friend and a defender of the slave leader.”

One of the positives of the movie is the renewed interest in Nat Turner sparked by the film’s release. We’ve had some additional information come out with the movie. See here, here, and here.

A recurring question in many discussion groups is whether Nat Turner was a hero or a villain. The break in opinion on that is generally predictable. But it seems to me the question is unnecessarily binary. Why can’t he be some of both? What do you think?

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8 comments

  1. I’ve also seen the reviews panning the movie, so it won’t be on our list of movies to see.

    Nat Turner’s rebellion is simply difficult to assess. You can’t criticize people for rebelling against slavery, but you can’t condone the near-indiscriminate slaughter of the uprising. I think my personal assessment is to look at the situation as a condemnation of the institution of slavery.

    1. The problem is so much of what we think we know about Nat Turner is based on the so-called “Confessions,” which were reported by a white supremacist, proslavery lawyer, Thomas R. Grey–who, by the way, was not Nat Turner’s lawyer and had no business speaking with Nat Turner, but wants us to believe Turner confessed all to him and what he wrote was a faithful rendition of what Turner allegedly said.

  2. Al! Well Done! I’ve been collecting online reviews for the film. Have about 14 in the stack. Nice job summarizing them!

  3. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    A couple of months ago, I did some soul searching on the “brother” topic to this one: John Brown. One can apply a civilized, 21st century condemnation of the barbaric nature of the Nat Turner uprising/rebellion, but I have the unique perspective of looking into my own gene pool to wonder if given the opportunity, say, how far would the Warsaw uprising have gone? To the other side, I wonder at what point during the relocation and imprisonment of the American Indian, a level of pushback leads to a free-for-all at any cost rebellion. What is the breaking point? How is anyone who has not experienced imprisonment, degradation, family rupture, violence, rape: SLAVERY, able to truly comprehend what the consequences of this condemned life renders?

    I am not so quick to condemn, as I know for certain that my life’s experience does not qualify me to do so.

    1. Well said, Shoshana.

    2. Shoshana may have given us a clue as to how to process these issues.

      I would have no moral problem with the Warsaw uprising, because it occurred during an ongoing war and involved a conquered people rising up against their oppressors. Obviously, issues of wholesale slaughter of “civilians” would still apply (but it is my understanding that the Uprising targeted German troops exclusively). Perhaps, the way to resolve these morally difficult cases (Turner and John Brown being the first examples that come to mind) is to take the position that slavery imposes a “state of war” between the enslaved person and the slaveowner, and thus resistance is allowed. (We should check the Lieber Code on this.) The issue of wholesale slaughter still is present, but it always is in warfare.

  4. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    Hi James,

    A few points: Last year, Mark Grimsley gave a lecture on how the Union Army applied the Lieber Code during the Civil War, but tossed the Code during the following Indian Wars, so not all wars are equal. Regarding the Warsaw uprising, I had wandered well into hypothetical “what-if” territory in supposing a wholesale slaughter of civilians occurred. The commonality between a Warsaw, American Indian & a Slave uprising is this: all three groups suffered across the board — man-woman-child. There were no exempted “civilians”, thus, the same goes for the enemy. I truly believe “a state of war” exists in all three cases, whether it is formally declared, or declared by the actions of the oppressors.

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