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The Birth of a Nation (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 120 minutes.

Not for children.

What would it have been like to have been born a slave, treated no better than a horse, with no hope? This is what this film shows, and, in that, it is brilliant, up until the last 20 minutes when it completely loses its way dramatically. The South had enslaved blacks for more than 150 years to produce their precious tobacco crop. Think of the generations who had been born, raised, lived their entire lives, and died in slavery with no hope. It’s monstrous. This film is, if anything, too soft on their lives in slavery. I was concerned that there would be a lot of graphic violence, but what violence there is, is left mostly to the imagination.

Unfortunately, this film canonizes Nat Turner (the surname is the name of the man who "owned" him), played by director/writer Nate Parker, by playing fast and loose with the truth. To give Parker a break, not much can be known about Turner’s life before the rebellion because he was just a slave and there’s nothing in the record to prove much of what’s in this movie, except that he was a preacher and could read and write.

It is unknown whether or not he was married, as shown in the film. Some claim that he was and that his wife’s name was Cherry. The movie shows her bearing him a child. Some say he had three children; others say he was childless.

While the short revolt was understandable (as was that of Spartacus almost 2,000 years previous), Nat and his cohorts killed indiscriminately, not just the slave masters, but their wives and children, too. Here’s what Nat says himself about one murder during his revolt in Confessions of Nat Turner in an interview recorded by Thomas Gray while Nat was in prison awaiting his trial in Jerusalem, Virginia in 1831:

“…neither age nor sex was to be spared, (which was invariably adhered to)… As I came round to the door I saw Will pulling Mrs. Whitehead out of the house, and at the step he nearly severed her head from her body, with his broad axe. Miss Margaret (Mrs. Whitehead’s daughter), when I discovered her, had concealed herself in the corner, formed by the projection of cellar cap from the house; on my approach she fled, but was soon overtaken, and after repeated blows with a sword, I killed her by a blow on the head, with a fence rail.”

This killing of a probably innocent young woman is not the act of a good person, no matter how much he has been wronged. It’s the act of a maniacal killer, something out of a horror film (and slavery fits that description, too). But Parker shows nothing like this in his film. The only people we see being killed are brutal slave owners, not their wives and children which Parker intentionally omits because it does not fit his narrative.

About the first thing you see on the screen is “based on a true story.” That means that there was a slave named Nat; everything else should be questioned, and not just blindly accepted as fact. Immediately after viewing this, I rated it 8/10 because it is extremely well produced and acted. But then after I fact-checked it, I lowered it to 5/10.

For instance, the film shows Nat being whipped by his master and then his master whispering in his ear that that was just the start; he was going to treat him worse than any of his other slaves. That’s just out and out nonsense. Maybe it happened but almost certainly not. There’s not a scintilla of evidence that this is nothing more than pure fiction.

In order to buttress the film’s canonization of Nat, it shows him giving himself up, apparently because lots of slaves were being murdered in the search for him. This is also a fabrication. In fact, Nat hid out in the forest until he was discovered two months after the revolt, apparently hiding in a hole like Iraqi monster Saddam Hussein. “Man of God” Nat apparently didn’t care that hundreds of fellow slaves, many of whom had nothing to do with his revolt, were being murdered in the search for him. That’s not the act of a selfless, saintly person.

A filmmaker has a responsibility to truth when telling a story he represents as the truth, using real names and purporting to show historical events. Shame on Parker for making up things that are not true and contrary to known facts. When totally counterfactual scenes like Nat voluntarily giving himself up are inserted, the result is that nothing else in the film can be trusted.

Finally, the film also does not present any context; it just ends, very undramatically and anti-climatically. But like most propagandists, Parker does not want to present context because the result of the revolt was disastrous for the slaves. While it might have inspired anti-slavery activists in the North, it resulted in oppressive laws passed throughout the South prohibiting the education of slaves, and restricting their movement and right of assembly among other things. For the next 30 years, apparently things were much worse for slaves than before Nat’s revolt until a white President and 330,000 white Union soldiers gave their lives to free the slaves in the Civil War, something that is rarely mentioned today (30,000 black Union soldiers also lost their lives in the Civil War). Not surprisingly, Parker ignores this.