Movie Review: “The Birth of a Nation”

Race relations and slavery have always been a topic of controversy, especially now in the U.S. where police brutality against African Americans is a hot button issue. Initially, I was keen on watching the film even though I knew it would put me in an uncomfortable mood. But learning to be a white ally means learning to sit with discomfort and listening to what others have experienced. This film reminded me of a similar feeling as when I watched Django Unchained. To be an aware person means to see the inequality and learn from it, even and especially if you feel uncomfortable.

The Birth of a Nation bears the same title as a 1915 film, which focused on the Lincoln assassination and birth of the KKK.  This film centers on the life of Nat Turner, an enslaved African American who uses the power of the gospel to insight a rebellion among slaves in 1831. When younger, Nat learned how to read and write, and fostered a deep love for religion and the Bible. As he grew up and experienced the atrocities against his fellow men and women, Turner could stand it no longer. Following atmospheric influence (two separate solar eclipses, the latter a product of an eruption from Mount St. Helens), Turner began enlisting assistance from neighborhood slaves and the second eclipse spurred him to begin the rebellion. An estimated 70 slaves and free men partook in the rebellion, killing 60 white men, women, and children. The rebellion was quashed in 48 hours, but several slaves were slaughtered merely for being slaves. White owners panicked dealing with the rebellion and preferred killing slaves over having another possible insurrection. Better to be safe than sorry in their opinion. Turner fled for a couple months but was inevitably captured and hung for his crimes.

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The eloquent message behind this movie is the power of words.  Through his passion for the Bible, Nat Turner was able to inspire broken and desperate people to rebel against their masters and oppressors. In the end, the rebellion didn’t last long, but for those who survived the rebellion there was a small glimpse of hope instilled in their hearts. They knew that rebellion was possible.  And it wouldn’t be too much longer that war would fight for their right to be free. But there was another power of words to consider: the word ‘no.’ One aspect of discomfort from this film was the aspect of slaves being raped, either to be broken in for service or simply for the owner and owner’s visitors’ pleasure. This is one of the more heinous aspects of slavery, in my opinion, but also the turning point for Turner in the film. This final atrocity is what moves the rebellion into action. But even more heinous is the connection of the director Nate Parker and rape. While I don’t know all the details of his case, there was enough in the research I found to make my stomach uneasy. As one of the many individuals who has experienced sexual violence, it made me very unfocused during the film considering that Nate Parker plays Nat Turner. Many actors, directors, celebrities of all shapes and forms (and even our president) have been accused of sexual misconduct. And while all details are not known, is it possible to separate the art from the artist? As someone who has experienced such violence firsthand, it is incredibly difficult for me to do so. Even if Cosby had a mistrial, I cannot watch the Cosby show anymore. Is it possible to separate the two? And an even better question, is should we have to separate them at all?  Rape culture is pervasive and permeates every aspect of society, especially survivors not being believed when they come forward. Trump got elected president, and how many women accused him of misconduct? When will survivors become more important? When we have a rebellion of our own?

In terms of racial history, I found the story itself quite captivating and likely a story I will research and read more about. But the film was too long by a good 20 minutes and tainted for me by the lead actor/director’s own history. While the cinematography features stunning Southern sites and views, it couldn’t save the viewing. In this instance, I couldn’t separate the art from the artist. Can you? You’ll have a change to find out when Thr Birth Of A Nation debuts on HBO Saturday, June 24 at 8:00pm.

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