PARK CITY, UTAH: When Nate Parker appeared before Monday’s world premiere of The Birth of a Nation at the Sundance Film Festival, he introduced it as “a film I’ve been carrying for seven years.” The gifted actor, familiar from Beyond the Lights, Red Tails, and Arbitrage, put everything on the line to make this dramatization of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner; he not only plays Turner, but wrote, directed, and produced the film as well. You can feel his blood pulsing through every frame of Birth of a Nation, a vital, stirring, and powerful film by and about people of color – and which arrives like a hand grenade in the midst of a deafeningly loud discussion about why that’s such a rarity in contemporary Hollywood.
In the Q&A session following Monday’s premiere, Parker confirmed that getting such a film made was no easy task – for all the usual, depressing reasons. “Anytime we’re dealing with our history, specifically with slavery, I find that it has been desperately sanitized,” he said. “So there’s a resistance to dealing with this material, so when the script goes out, people read it, they say, People won’t wanna see this. It’s another slave movie, we’ve seen those… And then you get, y’know, People overseas, they don’t really wanna see people of color. I think that’s self-perpetuating, and I think it’s easy to say that.”
Yet somehow, by some miracle of stubbornness and salesmanship and talent, Parker did it. And this is a confident, assured piece of filmmaking; you’d never guess it was the work of a first-time director, thanks to not only the patience of the storytelling, but the modesty of the style. He’s not trying to dazzle you, as so many debuting directors do – the film is classical in its form, retro even. But it’s not comforting; in its most disturbing moments, Birth traffics in sheer, visceral terror, in the threat of brute force that festers in these rooms and in these fields, and often arrives with no warning or recourse.
And yet faith endures. As a young boy, Nat learns to read; the matriarch of the plantation (Penelope Ann Miller) tells him most of her books are “full of things your kind can’t understand,” but she teaches him to read the Bible, and as an adult, he leads the Sunday service for his fellow field hands. Later, to help squelch “talks of insurrection,” he travels to nearby plantations, witnessing an assortment of horrors and abuse, all while preaching the gospel of submission. But a man’s eyes can only see so much, and his voice can only mouth so many platitudes.
His faith is a recurring motif, and in many ways, the motor that propels his story; if he first finds solace in the word of God, then he will also find fuel for his rage there, in verses like 1 Samuel 15:3: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” Nat Turner takes God at his word, telling his fellow conspirators how, “with the strength of our Lord, we’ll cut the head from the serpent.” And when the time comes make that cut, he does it in the eye of the cross.
The man he faces in that scene personifies one of the film’s most refreshing complicating factors. Plantation owner Samuel Turner (well played by Armie Hammer) is a reasonably likable character, at least comparatively speaking; he played with Nat as a boy, usually treats him kindly, even stands up for him on occasion. Such “humanizing” characteristics were quite by design, Parker explained. “Usually when we see films about slavery, or literature that is not real literature about slavery, it paints the oppressor as a sociopath. All they do is beat and torture — so people can check out. I’m not like that, that’s not like me, those people, bad bad bad. The reality was, these people that, in their benevolence, thought that they were doing good, even though they were doing bad. I think in 2016, that is something that echoes.
“There were so many people complicit, and not just ‘hillbillies,’ they were people in academia,” he continued. “So I think that we have to look at slavery as the layered system that it was, because then it will be a lot easier to accept the fact that the remnants and the legacy of it are affecting us now.”
That legacy becomes the film’s true subject – even more than the violent uprising that provides its climax, and thus its moments of emotional satisfaction, of inspiration, or victory. But they are fleeting, followed by bloodshed horrifying in its indiscriminateness, and Parker resists the understandable urge to downplay the latter in favor of the lift of the former. “They killin’ people everywhere, just for bein’ black,” Turner’s wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) says of the aftermath, and like the crack of a whip, the true meaning of Parker’s title becomes clear.
Reappropriating the handle of D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist 1915 Civil War drama seemed, if nothing else, a laudable act of provocation. But it’s more than that. The power these black men were capable of, even for a few brief hours, created such fear that any and all black bodies were broken, and that is still our legacy. They may not break those bodies in the public square, framed with red, white, and blue bunting, like they did for Nat Turner. But wherever the place, whatever the circumstance, it remains an American tradition.
“I made this film for one reason: with the hope of creating change agents,” Parker said, after his film had unspooled and worked over its film festival audience. “That people can watch this film and be affected. That you can watch this film and see that there are systems that were in place that were corrupt, and corrupted people. And the legacy of that still lives with us. There are systems in our lives right now, in your environment right now. Are you passive, or are you corrupt and complicit?”
The Birth of a Nation screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival.