The Birth of a Nation is a Biblical odyssey in reverse, with New Testament love and forgiveness gradually yielding to Old Testament wrath and vengeance. Any Christ allegory applied to slave rebellion leader Nat Turner is transfigured into an allegory of righteous warriors like Judah, Jonah, David, and Samson. The scriptural admonition that slaves should obey their earthly masters gives way to the prophet Samuel’s fire and brimstone call, “Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
Writer-director Nate Parker portrays Turner, an early-nineteenth-century enslaved man who was taught to read the Bible as a child by his master’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller)—other literary classics are only “for white folks.” As an adult, the literate Turner is permitted by his new master and former childhood playmate Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) to minister to his slaves to keep them happy and docile. Word spreads of Turner’s garrulous gift, and soon he’s hired out as an itinerant preacher for other plantations in and around Southampton County, Virginia.
As Turner rides the circuit, he encounters the appalling conditions of American slavery. At first, Samuel is similarly outraged, but as his financial fortunes wane and he slowly succumbs to the bottle, he becomes more sadistic, including toward Turner. After slave hunters rape and brutally beat Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), his anger and religious fervor fuel a single-minded mission to recruit like-minded slaves and exact retribution on their captors.
Parker defies Hollywood racial conventions in ways besides appropriating his film’s title from D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 cinematic landmark. There’s subversive audacity in the utter absence of the usual kindly white character, seen everywhere from Roots and Django Unchained to 12 Years a Slave, through which white audiences can divorce themselves from the onscreen cruelty committed by their ancestors and receive some measure of absolution. Every white person in The Birth of a Nation is callous and culpable; while visiting one plantation, Turner spies a young white girl who is leading around a black girl on a leash, like a pet. There is no refuge from history’s harsh indictment, and the requital is unsparing.
The film’s fissures form in Turner’s rebellion itself, a forty-eight-hour insurrection in August 1831 that resulted in the deaths of approximately sixty whites, including men, women, and children—although, conspicuously, Parker only shows male slavers being hacked and decapitated. After spending the bulk of the narrative carefully crafting Turner’s backstory and motives, Parker breezes through the two-day uprising, the film’s fulcrum, in an almost cursory fashion. There’s little examination of strategy or moral conflict among the freedom fighters, or of Turner’s efforts to marshal his bloody revolt. The rebellion begins, and a few montages later there’s a battle royale, where it ends. In between, there’s just enough time to give each aggrieved slave a chance to butcher his personal oppressor. It’s telling that the only black character to express any consternation over Turner’s vicious zealotry is Samuel’s “house negro” (Roger Guenveur Smith), whose exhortations of “Y’all are all dead!” are played for laughs.
But he was right: hundreds of enslaved and free black people were murdered in retaliation for the revolt. One of the film’s most striking images is a tree line filled with lynched people, set to the strains of Nina Simone’s haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit.” In Parker’s telling, after Turner’s rebellion is put down and he hears of the mass collateral slaughter, he turns himself over to authorities in, of all places, Jerusalem, Virginia. History says Turner eluded capture for two months before being apprehended in a wooded hideout.
The way scripture inspires Nat Turner’s rebellion, and how it is used to justify the evil of slavery itself, falls in line with a long legacy of religious fanaticism. But if the past is prologue, the true power of The Birth of a Nation is how it frames our current moment of ongoing racial inequality and unrest: police shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement, peaceful and violent protests, and so on. While Parker’s film may be an imperfect vessel, the message it carries is loud and clear.