After much anticipation and controversy, we finally got a chance to view Nate Parker’s A Birth of a Nation, the cinematic re-telling of the life of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The film is co-written, co-produced, directed and stars Nate Parker along with the supporting cast including Colman Domingo, Roger Guenveur Smith, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union. The film is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures who stated in the film’s press release that “The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities against himself and his fellow slaves, Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom”. Needless to say, the film does not fail to deliver what is promises.
The film’s title is a play on “D.W. Griffith’s 1915 white supremacist KKK propaganda film The Birth of a Nation. Parker described his reasoning for adapting the film’s title from such a controversial source as “ironically, but very much by design”. In regards to the film’s title, Parker has elaborated, stating in an interview with an online magazine: Interview Magazine, that “Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today. I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change”. With A Birth of a Nation, Parker hopes to reclaim the title and usher in a new era of filmmaking. Showing that even 185 years after Turner’s rebellion, it is still as relevant as ever.
Parker’s directorial debut, though, uneven at times in its pacing is still an atmospheric and hauntingly emotional roller coaster of pain, torture, endurance, and resilience seldom portrayed by corporate Hollywood studios. Though the subject matter in the film is inevitably brutal and graphic by nature, it is tastefully done and never crosses into the realm of feeling too exploitive like many other films in recent memory had crossed into. However, make no mistake, as one would venture to guess A Birth of a Nation is by no means whatsoever a comfortable viewing. Taking an uncompromising and brutal look at American slavery and the barbaric cruelty and inhumanity enslaved Africans were subjected to for countless generations across the United States. Laying the groundwork essentially for the current conditions and systematic injustices we still face in this country today.
A Birth of a Nation is a brilliantly underrated independent film that will more than likely be snubbed by the academy at the Oscars this year but nonetheless has cemented itself as a critical and financial success for Parker and Fox Searchlight Studios. While it is unlikely that A Birth of a Nation will receive the same amount of near-universal critical acclaim, accolades and applause from critics and the Hollywood elite like 12 Years a Slave did and similar films, it is nonetheless a necessary film that takes an in-depth look at a piece of history that for too long has been ignored and neglected. Today November 11th marks the 185th anniversary of Nat Turner’s execution and in an era of Trump-inspired politics in our nation that same eternal, burning desire for life, liberty, sovereignty, freedom, and resistance of tyranny still echoes, marches and fights for those same principles.