Honoring the Real Nat Turner

The Birth of a Nation isn't up to capturing the brutal, prophetic justice of Nat Turner's rebellion.

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It was naïve of me to believe that an American filmmaker in our feeble era would actually take on the Nat Turner story. We’re not up to it — we don’t have the respect for history, or the imagination, or the guts.

Before I saw Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, I wrongly believed that he might do something worthwhile, because of his seemingly brilliant revisionist use of that title. But now I give up. After the bitter experiences of Django Unchained, and The Free State of Jones, and now this travesty, I won’t be suckered in anymore. We might just as well forget about dealing cinematically with slavery or the Civil War in this country (even while granting an honorable mention to 12 Years a Slave).

Maybe someday, a great filmmaker from another nation could take it on for us, and show us how it’s done.

But back to business: Birth of a Nation shares the title of a landmark 1916 American film directed by D. W. Griffith. Griffith, an ardent Old South mythologizer, based his film on the rabidly racist novel The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon Jr. In both novel and film, we see nightmarishly twisted the argument that Abraham Lincoln makes in the Gettysburg Address: that the Civil War, fought over slavery, represents a blood-soaked second founding of the nation, “a new birth of freedom.”

Dixon and Griffith appropriated the idea of a “new birth” of the nation and recast it as the reunion of Northern and Southern whites in bonds of eternal brotherhood, after putting down the threat of “black empire.” The Ku Klux Klan are the heroes of the brave new nation they envision, and Griffith’s film ends with the triumphal march of the Klan, led by the film’s Confederate soldier hero and his Northern bride. The film was a critical and commercial triumph, despite outraged protests by the NAACP, and its popularity is credited with catalyzing a resurgence of the Klan.

By calling his film Birth of a Nation one hundred years later, Nate Parker seemed set on an epic reenvisioning that would explicitly reclaim the nation’s second founding from Griffith’s cinematic clutches, and return it to something like what Lincoln imagined and what Nat Turner died for: American’s bloody, violent “new birth” redeemed by the greatness of the cause, the fight for a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

It’s not a squeamish worldview. We try to folksy-up our sixteenth president, and make him cute, but it won’t wash. By the latter days of the Civil War, Lincoln was seeing near-apocalyptic visions. Consider his inaugural address on the subject of the Civil War still raging on in its fourth year:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Reading Lincoln’s second inaugural brings one close to the imaginative world of Nat Turner. He too pictured a cosmic moral struggle playing out on American soil in the form of gory, righteous battles. He too saw signs and portents in the world, just like Lincoln, whose belief in his premonitions of his own political triumphs and his own death are well known. Turner carried an avenging sword when he led his revolt that seems to prefigure Lincoln’s image of the bloody sword that is the fitting answer to the bloody lash.

The Old Testament God was alive for nineteenth-century Americans, even for those tending toward agnostic questioning, like Lincoln. We do these people a disservice by refusing to recognize either their mental landscapes or their actual deeds, while supposedly representing the substance of their lives.

In her review entitled “The Birth of a Nation is an Epic Fail,” historian Leslie M. Alexander has already made admirably clear how disastrous Parker’s film is in terms of countless stupid deviations from the actual life of Nat Turner. They sink the whole film into recycled slavery-film clichés and ultimate banality:

A crucial turning point in the movie occurs when Turner’s wife, Cherry, is brutally gang raped by a group of slave patrollers — an attack the film portrays as the spark that ultimately drove Turner to launch his rebellion. But there is not a shred of historical evidence to suggest that Cherry was ever raped by slave patrollers, nor is there any evidence to indicate that an attack on his wife inspired Turner to rebel. By all accounts, Turner took up arms against slavery because he believed slavery was morally wrong and violated the law of God . . . This fact is important because it demonstrates that black people not only fought against slavery because of its extreme violence and brutality, but also because they knew in their hearts that slavery was an unjust, exploitative system that violated moral laws.

Parker’s obscuring of this important fact is all the more reprehensible because Nat Turner himself made such a point of it. In his jail-cell confession, Turner specified that his master Joseph Travis “was to me a kind master, [who] placed the greatest confidence in me.”

Even if that kindness seems doubtful — and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson is on record as doubting it, based on the signs of imperfectly healed injuries on Turner’s body — it’s important that Turner took pains to emphasize that point. He ruled out the explanation, eagerly sought by the white public of his time, that his uprising was sparked by personal vengeance against his master. And yet Parker’s film insists on it, dwelling on scenes of Turner and his right-hand man’s personal revenge against their cruel masters and the slave patrollers who victimized them and their wives.

If Turner’s life had been generally uneventful before his revolt, it might’ve made sense to change the basic facts. But you’d be hard pressed to find anyone’s life that was more dramatic. Even Turner’s jail-cell confessions — which Parker does not include in the film — are riveting. At points they rival Joan of Arc’s trial record for cool certitude in the face of death. When Turner’s lawyer Thomas L. Gray asks him if he regrets his actions now that he’s condemned to die by hanging, Turner indicates that he sees his death as the instigation of a larger movement when he says calmly, “Was not Christ crucified?”

But the main thing is, if you’re going to make a film about the life of Nat Turner, there’s no point inventing a different figure altogether, a nice young preacher who courts and marries a nice woman and has a nice child and then is driven to revolt only by the monstrous sadism of his own master and the local slave patrollers. Because that’s not the life of Nat Turner. He was not confused, as so many are, by the issue of the “kindness” or cruelty of masters when it comes to slavery. If slave masters were generally kind, as many Southern apologists for the system have claimed, would that make slavery a benevolent institution that should be allowed to persist?

It’s not that Nate Parker makes no attempt to indicate Turner’s belief that he was chosen as an instrument of God to free his people by leading the revolt that would eradicate slavery, it’s just that he consistently skids over into distorting narrative choices.

Parker starts the film on a firelit slave ceremony recognizing the small child Turner as a “prophet,” a scene that’s presumably there to make Turner seem less crazy to secular audiences when he sees visions as an adult. It’s true as far as we know that Turner’s remarkable intelligence as a child was widely noted, and as a young preacher he was so powerfully effective he was called “the Prophet” in the slave community. Throughout the film Parker traces Turner’s progress as a local preacher, though the emphasis is placed on the way his ability is exploited by his dissolute white master, who’s being paid to tour the countryside with Turner preaching obedience and docility to local slaves.

Which brings us to the all-important visions, which comprise the crucial turning point in Turner’s life. As Alexander explains,

In the months prior to the rebellion, he reported receiving a series of visions and messages from God predicting a cataclysmic “race war” that would destroy slavery, and by early 1831, Turner believed that God had selected him as the person to lead the revolt. According to the historical record, these were the only inspirations for Turner’s rebellion.

Let’s consider how Nate Parker screws those up as well.

We’re shown a few visions which are not like the actual Nat Turner’s: an angel in the form of a sunlit, white-winged young black woman looking vaguely like a floating Victoria’s Secret model, and a strange phallic close-up of an ear of corn in Turner’s hand that suddenly runs with blood.

But those visions indicate how far out of his depth Parker is — he’s got a trite, limited imagination. It’s frustrating, because he could simply have used the descriptions we have from Gray’s published Confessions of Nat Turner which contain no kitschy angels whatsoever:

. . . [A]nd the Holy Ghost was with me, and said, “Behold me as I stand in the Heavens” — and I looked and saw the forms of men in different attitudes — and there were lights in the sky to which the children of darkness gave other names than what they really were — for they were the lights of the Saviour’s hands, stretched forth from east to west, even as they were extended on the cross on Calvary for the redemption of sinners. . . . [A]nd shortly afterwards, while laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven . . . and I then found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters, and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood . . . For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew . . . [I]t was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.

Given that haunting description of Christ’s blood bedewing the land, spattering the leaves and crops, as a sign of the bloody revolt to come, it’s hard to fathom the idiocy of a director who decides not to film it.

After that omission, it goes without saying that Parker elides the harrowing events of Turner’s revolt, to the point of incomprehensibility. The real Nat Turner and his men agreed that in the pursuit of freedom, when they set out to eradicate the system run by plantation-owning whites ruling the land, “neither age nor sex was to be spared.” Here Parker tiptoes carefully, showing us only the killings of the villainous white men who had attacked the wives of the rebel slaves.

But the fact is, white women and children of the ruling class found in plantation houses on Nat Turner’s route to Jerusalem, Virginia, were killed. The houses of poor whites were passed by, their lives spared.

If you can’t face that fact, that in Turner’s view the evil “Serpent” loosed on the world that must be fought and destroyed was embodied by every member of the white slaveholding elite, then you shouldn’t try to film the story of Nat Turner.

And given the obtuse cowardice of our film era, it looks like no American filmmaker should try to adapt the life story of John Brown either. Another film I was always hoping to see bites the dust!