I remember reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” for a class assignment in ninth grade, and even that was significantly different from my reading of “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The parallels between two distinct journeys above an unjust society can be found in these examples of the courageous narrative. In a new historical fiction, “The Birth of a Nation,” we are not only served an interest in a historical event, but through the appropriate lens of the event’s central figure.
“The Birth of a Nation” boldly borrows its title from the 1915 film of the same name. With this concept, the presentation we receive in 2016 is placed in a context that would inspire any Nat Turner historian or a Roger Ebert film critic to lend the film its historical credential. The 2016 film is hardly an adaptation, but its seriousness reaches toward that consideration. This film could have taken on the audacity of being named after Nat Turner’s biography, “The Confessions of Nat Turner” because the intention for Nat Turner’s perspective is persistent. For 2 hours, we get quintessential biographical features, such as, the transition from Nat Turner as a young boy to an adult Nat Turner, played by the film’s Writer and Director, Nate Parker.
Parker thoughtfully provides an idea of slave life in this film. Nat Turner has a Mother, Grandmother, Wife, and Slave Master, Samuel Turner, who occupies them all on a plantation owned by the Turner family. The depiction of Nat happily interacting with his family is sometimes distracting to a build-up to the revolt, but the film redeems itself with Parker’s directing of Nat’s responses to the hideous conditions.
A first-time director manages to gather a subconscious from his subject, which is a unique use of dramatization in film and a popular fact about Nat Turner. Nat is said to have been inspired by visions from God to start the rebellion, all of which Parker strategically times throughout the film. There are not hints of an angry Nat Turner, which would create a mockery of the real, intense anger of a slave who spearheaded a rebellion in 1831. Neither is Nat void of vulnerability, which would exaggerate the real, intense anger of the slave. Nat is beaten multiple times throughout the film when his only response is, “Yes Sir.” Nat’s anger is gradual, but apparent. Nat can be seen as both the historical hero who uses the Word of God to fight the Master and a man who interacts with the Master’s child obliviously to its consequences.
The complexity of Nat’s personality allows for a plot that is equally engaging. When Nat organizes the first meeting amongst the slaves for the revolt, the night and wilderness are taken over by signs of rebellion. In every scene prior to the rebellion, there was bloodshed, so perhaps no one a part of the rebellion appears to be in shock at the moment when he or she is supposed to grab an axe. Parker does an exceptional job of capturing any controversy surrounding the rebellion when the rebellion is greeted with opposition only after news spread of the slayings.
Every action that happens in this film is perpetuated by the slave’s awareness of the urgent situation. Nat and his rebels do not lie in wait for confrontation, as if to suggest that their enslavement is simply a matter of disagreement between whites and blacks. Rather, the rebels being led by Nat organize an attack that make plantations look like any other dried up land.
It will not go unnoticed that this film is Nate Parker’s first as majority creator. Nate Parker is a seasoned actor with relatively inspirational roles on his résumé, one of which was played alongside Denzel Washington. Much is to be expected of this film from our knowledge of what lies behind the scenes alone. During promotion for the film, Nate Parker acknowledged these expectations, as he expressed the importance of its subject matter and his role in it. The significance of preserving Nate Parker’s career has made a wonderful film that preserves the legacy of Nat Turner.
This film is a necessary addition to our sources on critical inquiry of history. The story of a revolutionary as told by another revolutionary does not simply represent history, but a special type of history. History that is both relevant and appreciated is present in “The Birth of a Nation.” I have long-awaited a picture of Nat Turner beyond the assumptions of a man who grabbed an axe. In grabbing that axe, Nat Turner grabbed a Nation’s attention and sacrificed his own.