History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme
Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation is based on the story of Nat Turner’s bloody slave revolt that took place near the southeastern border of Virginia in August of 1831. Here are a few factual bones, much of which the film doesn’t include: In a 48-hour period, Turner and some 50 slave recruits managed to slaughter 55 whites – men, women and children. According to his own testimony, he intended to “conquer Southampton County as the white men did in the Revolution”. Nearing Jerusalem (now Courtland) toward the end of their murderous campaign, Turner and his band of insurgents stopped at a plantation to enlist more men. Here, however, they were met by a small cohort of white men, but with back-up troops from Jerusalem not far away, the slaves were soon dispersed, effectively ending their reign of terror. Turner himself was able to elude his pursuers for more than a month at which point he was captured, taken to the county seat, and arrested. On October 30th he wrote his confession under the plea of “Not Guilty”; and in short order, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die on Friday November 11th at noon. Writing for The Atlantic in August of 1861, T. W. Higginson said that Turner “met his death with perfect composure”. He “declined addressing the multitude assembled, and told the sheriff in a firm voice that he was ready.”
Other than his written confession and published accounts of the rebellion itself, little is known of Nat Turner, his upbringing, or his family. The fact that he “felt … singled out from childhood for some great work;” that he had odd markings on his body; and that he was gifted with a sharp intellect, artistic skills, and mechanical know-how, all of which duly impressed friends and family alike, are things we know only by his own account. But, as history bears out, his sense of uniqueness and personal destiny marked his entire life – and death. Devoting himself to his faith, Turner “fasted, prayed, preached, read the Bible, heard voices when he walked behind his plough, and communicated his revelations to the awestruck slaves. They told him in return, that, ‘if they had his sense, they would not serve any master in the world.'” In the end, this was his resolve.
The facts are few, indeed, as Higginson points out, and these are representative fragments that Nate Parker and company used to cobble together their emotionally charged, highly embellished, but otherwise important story. Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with tugging on the heartstrings or indulging in a bit of artistic license because that’s how the game is played. The problem arises when the responsibility inherent in what we say is irresponsibly sacrificed on the altar of how we say it and why. For example, in the context of the film, I noted, with stunned amazement, that every white character, bar none, was utterly contemptible; and that every black character was nothing short of admirable, if not angelic. If employing the “bad white colonist” and “good black slave” trope wasn’t so deplorable, it would be laughable, especially given Turner’s own testimony, who said of his master Joseph Travis that he was “only too indulgent … and placed the greatest confidence in me.” Not only does this patently false dichotomy perpetuate Rousseau’s “myth of the noble savage”, it flies in the face of history itself that’s replete with examples of “man’s inhumanity against man”, including black’s inhumanity against their own, and others.
The point is, everything about human experience cuts both ways, and we never quite know where that line is because we live in a kaleidoscopic and highly nuanced world. To reduce that complexity in order to further an agenda is both coercive and dangerous, especially since Parker’s film sells itself as history. Let’s face it, this isn’t a Tarantino film. But when the bloodletting began and cheers of approval followed, I was reminded of a similar audience response when I saw Django Unchained. In fact, when Nat Turner said, in effect, that he was going to kill every last white man, the black woman sitting beside me shouted, “Amen!” If I found Django Unchained highly questionable, largely because Tarantino truly believes his revisionist storytelling was in the service of black history, frankly, The Birth of a Nation was barely watchable. Rather than tell the story, or otherwise display it with an eye toward a faithful, realistic, thought provoking, nuanced, and intellectually stimulating interpretation, Parker’s film, like Tarantino’s, merely panders to the lowest and most destructive of human passions: revenge. Instead of creatively exploring the tension between, say, forgiveness and revenge, we are encouraged to unleash the latter as an end in itself, as the only appropriate response to injustice.
But I think the biggest problem with the film is the glorification of religious terror. The very idea that God – any God – would sanction murder and mayhem is repugnant, and stands in stark contrast to the Bible’s overarching message of God’s creative and redeeming love. The Bible certainly and unapologetically depicts violence, but it by no means sanctions violence. There’s a difference. Christ came to fulfill the Hebrew law and its inherent violence, and in so doing he redeemed it, and he did it out of love, for the sake of love. He was crucified for his faith, but he didn’t kill for it. This is precisely the kind of faith and non-violent message that Martin Luther King Jr. espoused and epitomized during his lifetime, one that was the cornerstone of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The very fact that, as a killer, Nat Turner was depicted in a Christ-like way, complete with a weeping child-Judas character, is deeply disturbing. When we compare the message of Nate Parker’s film with King’s, it should give us reason for pause. Whereas the former promotes a message of revolution through violence and bloodshed, the latter proffered a revolution of the human heart. Again, the difference here makes all the difference. King of course recognized that true and lasting change only comes from a transformed heart. If Dr. King were alive to witness Nate Parker’s travesty of a film, I dare say he’d retreat in order to weep on sackcloth and ashes,
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly comment on D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film of the same name. For obvious reasons the two films beg comparison. If the silent classic was reviled (and applauded) on its release for its racism and its irresponsible, revisionist man-handling of history, it seems clear that Nate Parker’s 2016 film is guilty of similar transgressions. When one considers that both films have as their centerpiece a “just cause”, and that each has a heroic, messiah-like protagonist that suffers horribly before fulfilling that cause; and when one also considers that both films use “God” and religion to sanction and ultimately justify violence as a means to achieve that end, we can readily see how these films represent both sides of the same bloody coin. The question then is this: in a climate of escalating terror and racial violence, does The Birth of a Nation (2016) help deliver us from such evil, or does it deliver it to our doorstep wrapped in a blood soaked ribbon? If the latter, then in spite of our advancements in every field of endeavor, we’ve learned very little in the last one hundred years. If history never repeats itself, sadly, it continues to rhyme.