Make no mistake, Birth of a Nation (2016) is a consequential film, whether you see it in theaters or not. Director and star Nate Parker’s moving tale of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt brings together themes of injustice, faith, freedom, and revenge. The movie strives to achieve what Braveheart (1995) accomplished for the mythos of Scottish independence in America, and it is a fantastic film on many accounts. (It also takes liberties with the history, like Braveheart did.) There is one very disturbing undercurrent, however — a possible justification for the racial unrest exemplified in the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker, Nonstop 2014), a slave who learns how to read the Bible and consequently becomes a preacher. This enables a particularly cruel form of injustice, as his indebted master takes him on tour to preach submission to ill-treated slaves.
In one harrowing encounter, a master recalls decreasing his slaves’ portion to one meal per day. He hires Nat Turner to preach to his slaves, saying, “He’s a n***er like y’all, and if y’all listen to him you might just make it into heaven.” Fighting back sobs, Nat reads from Peter 2:18, which exhorts slaves to obey their masters, “not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
Indeed, the masters are harsh, and worse. As the film opens, slave catchers hunt down Nat’s father and kill him mercilessly. This teaches the young preacher a key lesson — black lives do not matter for white slaveholders. Indeed, the film portrays constant acts of abuse and cruelty which would make any viewer’s skin crawl. Slavery in the Old South was indeed an evil institution, and the Bible was used to justify it — not all slaves were treated as harshly as the movie presents, but such unspeakable cruelty did indeed occur, and the film does justice in portraying it.
But Birth of a Nation does not just show the Bible justifying slavery — Nat Turner also uses it to inspire his infamous slave revolt. The movie shows a subtle change in the verses Turner quotes to his fellow slaves while preaching. He turns from Peter 2 to Psalm 149, which begins by praising God, but then declares of the godly ones: “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.”
Turner eventually has a revelation, declaring, “I see now that for every verse they use to defend our torture there’s another demanding our freedom.”
When another slave cautions, “He is a God of love, Nat, don’t you forget that,” the preacher responds, “I won’t, nor will I forget that He is a God of wrath.”
In riling up his fellow slaves, the preacher declares, “With the supernatural power of God we straightened our back against the evil one.” As he runs into battle, Turner loudly quotes Psalm 27, “The LORD is our light and our salvation, whom shall we fear?”
To be fair, the film also acknowledges the many problems with using Old Testament verses to justify a revolt. In one particular and moving scene, a woman who has been horridly abused encourages Turner not to seek vengeance. “Put the sword in its place, for them that take up the sword will perish by the sword. Leave this to the Lord,” she declares. Her humble faith in the face of such horrid circumstances is a true inspiration, which viewers of this film will not easily forget.
Next Page: Is this a correct use of the Bible? How does it relate to Black Lives Matter?
The Bible has few principles as strong as God’s promise of redemption and freedom for the oppressed. The verses throughout Psalms, Proverbs, and the entire Old Testament speak to the Lord’s love of justice, and His absolute hatred for oppressors. These verses are the root of the Social Justice movement among Christians, and there is a great deal of truth in them.
However, Jesus Christ introduced a truly radical way of melding justice with mercy. He willingly bore injustice — even to the most gruesome and humiliating death imaginable — on our behalf, and inspired a movement of humble suffering which defeated the awesome might of the Roman Empire.
Jesus was not the simple peace-lover many today view him as, however. He urged his followers to turn the other cheek, but He also was not afraid to face down the religious leaders of His day, even to the extent of turning over the tables in the Temple. He always refrained from military or rebellious action, however. A truly Christian abolitionist movement would look more like the struggles of William Wilberforce in England than the revolts of John Brown and Nat Turner in America.
Indeed, Birth of a Nation also has pagan African elements, which add to the cultural roots of enslaved blacks in America. As in history, Turner begins his revolt after seeing an eclipse, and he views himself as a sort of prophet, “ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” These events make for powerful cinematography, but they also introduce some doubt as to the full Christian justification for Nat Turner’s revolt.
When the film depicts that revolt, it follows the history, which itself is harrowing. Historian Stephen B. Oates testified that Turner ordered his fellow ex-slaves to “kill all the white people,” and a newspaper at the time reported Turner’s declaration that “indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm.”
In a style reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), which gloried in the slaughter of white slave-holders who had horridly mistreated their slaves, Birth of a Nation shows Turner and his fellows go from house to house, killing whites and freeing slaves. There are moments of full revenge, where main characters take vengeance for the concrete and brutal injustices done to them, and the audience is meant to admire the slaughter of the oppressors.
But (spoiler alert) Nat Turner’s revolt ultimately fails. In history, the slaves killed approximately sixty white men, women, and children. But after their defeat, the slave-holders took a bloody revenge. The state executed 56 blacks, militias killed at least 100, and an estimated 200 blacks were killed, most of whom were not involved with the rebellion.
The film once again does justice to the history, but in doing so, it will likely further foment the idea that black people even today are marked for death merely for the color of their skin. As one character in the film declares, “They’ve killed people everywhere for no reason but being black.”
This line was likely meant to resonate with black people who fear for their safety and the safety of their children after high-profile cases involving the death of black men at the hands of police. Ironically, the most championed of these cases later proved justifiable, as in the case of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, who had robbed a convenience store before his fatal altercation, and who — contrary to the Black Lives Matter narrative — did not actually declare “hands up, don’t shoot!”
Next Page: How Birth of a Nation might stoke “Black Lives Matter,” and why it doesn’t have to.
Indeed, when I attended a screening of Birth of a Nation in mid-September, I sat next to a middle-aged black woman, who immediately addressed the issue of police profiling after the film the ended. She was concerned for the life and safety of her son, and the movie further reminded her of the danger he might face at the hands of police. I knew then that it was not my place to counter the Black Lives Matter narrative in that moment, and I learned a great deal from her about the deep and genuine concern among the black community.
Whatever the ugliness of racial tensions today, however, there is simply no comparison between 1831 and 2016. In cases of more clear-cut police abuse of force, as in the death of unarmed Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., the police officers responsible (in this case Betty Shelby), have been arrested and charged.
The criminal justice system may indeed need reform, but rioting in the street is not the way to achieve this. After all, political organizations as diverse as the Koch network and the ACLU have teamed up on this issue.
A terrifying undercurrent of anger against white people — also based solely on the color of their skin — has emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement. Indeed, a man who identified himself as the brother of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man killed by a black police officer in Charlotte, NC, actually shouted, “All white people are f***in’ devils!” Similarly, when riots broke out in Milwaukee, Wisc. in August, a group of rioters declared, “He white, beat his s**t!” Also, “Black Lives Matter” graffiti in Tampa, Fl. featured the slogan, “Kill white people!”
Birth of a Nation does not condone modern-day violence against whites, and it does not declare that black people are targeted by police merely due to the color of their skin. These are narratives which can be drawn from the film, but are not explicitly declared in it.
The movie itself is a strong tribute to Nat Turner, with moving acting, compelling cinematography, and gruesome violence. I would not recommend it for those with weak constitutions, but it is a powerful film with a strong basis in history and a compelling perspective on the plight of black slaves in America. For anyone wishing to understand the perspective of blacks who still feel targeted and unsafe in America today, it is a noble testimony to their sentiments, even if it might feed the racial tensions it also exposes.
One final note: Birth of a Nation takes its name from the immensely consequential 1915 white supremacist film of the same name. Like that movie, it presents a very racial narrative pitting one race against another, with strong Christian undertones. Don’t get me wrong — there is more justice and truth in this 2016 film than the 1915 version.
Nonetheless, we should be careful not to allow this new movie to stoke the racial tensions currently plaguing our nation. Let us learn from history, understand the perspectives of the black community, and appreciate a well-crafted film. But let us not take the wrong message: Christianity does not justify vengeful racial murder, and 2016 is not 1831.
Watch the trailer on the next page.