This year’s Oscar frontrunner, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation takes its name from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK propaganda film but instead dramatically portrays the historic story of Nat Turner. Through Turner’s story, the audience encounters a powerful struggle over race, humanity, purpose, and Scripture in the film that Parker wrote, directed, and now stars in. Viscerally engaging and cleverly scripted, the film grabs us early with its growing sense of dread and the human struggle, and refuses to let our consciences go. Even as the credits fade, questions remain. What is truth? Where does justice come from? How can we follow God in a world so twisted?
Early on, the young Turner is told, “You are a child of God. You got purpose. The Lord God put it there. No one can take it away from you.” For much of his life, he holds to that belief, even in the face of the casual racism of his owner, Sam Turner (Armie Hammer), and the violent abuse of a community slaver, Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley). Even while white men hold power over him, Turner is encouraged in childhood by his mother (Aunjanue L. Ellis), who understands his visions but encourages him to keep his head down.
But Turner is special, as evidenced by the way he quickly proves literate, drawing the attention of his owner’s wife, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). She enforces the kind of subtle racism with what she points Turner toward reading, that is, the Bible, remarking that Turner’s ‘kind’ wouldn’t understand other books. And here lies the spiritual struggle of the film. Whites read the Bible in the early 1800s to control and manipulate things as they are; blacks use it to highlight freedom and hope for what will be.
When the alcoholic Rev. Walthall (Mark Boone Junior) shows up on the Turner plantation, he proposes to Sam that Nat preach to mollify blacks. Sam gets paid handsomely for pimping out his literate slave, who is instructed to preach from passages like Peter 2:18 (“Slaves submit yourselves to your masters, not only those who are good and considerate, but also those who are harsh”) to keep the slaves in their place. But this highlights the age old struggle facing the church: those who can read the text of the Bible determine how the illiterate understand and receive the word of God.
In touring the south and seeing slavery in other settings, Nat Turner begins to see the system he has become part of, how he himself has become an Uncle Tom to control his own people. He sees black children playing as slaves; he sees the violent ways that other slaveholders use to keep their slaves in line. And he recognizes that the power of the Scripture lies not in the way that the whites have manipulated it, but in the freeing power of God’s redemptive gospel. Finally, he realizes that “for every verse they use to justify our bondage. there’s another demanding our freedom.”
Unfortunately, even the whites who get it … don’t get it. After a particularly brutal episode that pushes Nat closer to the brink of the rebellion he will now be known for, Elizabeth Turner tells Nat that “God’s gonna punish whoever did this, the monsters!” But she can’t see that she’s part of the problem, that the system is broken, corrupt, and destitute of any spiritual value; she can’t see that whites who stay silent (or have slaves at all) are part of the institution, which is violent by its very nature.
Still, Turner wavers on a perilous edge: does God’s Old Testament violence encourage an abrupt and bloody response to slaveholding? Or is Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), right when she warns him that “all who take up the sword will perish with the sword — leave this to the Lord?” That’s not the only question raised toward Turner’s understanding of faith, as other slaves ask him where God is, or as Turner’s master asks him, what he expects to happen?
In the end, Birth of a Nation is a violent, troubling view of the United States’ past, when our cultural values and Scriptural underpinnings wrestled for and against each other. Even two hundred years later, the state we find ourselves in – with a world full of violence and pain – we must recognize that God still speaks, but we often confuse what God is saying with what we want to hear. In fact, there isn’t a more timely film to poke our self-assured ‘take’ on race, religion, and community than this one (and I thought Zootopia already did that pretty well.)
Parker challenges us to consider whether or not we can recognize our own racism, our own misguided sense of ourselves, and our own Scriptural confusion. Turner’s liberation proved short lived, but here, we can recognize that his life and death highlighted fractures that will take hard work and intentionality in seeking God’s will to heal.