One hundred years ago, D.W. Griffith released a movie called The Birth of a Nation. It was formerly named The Clansman, and was based on a melodrama of the same title. The Birth of a Nation is a controversial film, for while it is considered one of the landmark movies in the furthering of cinematography, it is also an incredibly racist film, depicting Black people as horrific monsters and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.
Now, a new movie called The Birth of a Nation has arrived in theaters. Nate Parker wrote, directed, and stars in the movie, which details the story of the Nat Turner rebellion in the years leading up to the Civil War. No longer is the title The Birth of a Nation associated with the racism and justified cruelty of such horrific time periods, but portrays the story of a flawed individual who, after experiencing horrific tragedy and injustice, made a choice to fight back. So why give the movie the same title as a racist propaganda film, still used by the KKK to this day?
To take the title back.
Before I continue, I would like to address something about the filmmakers: Nate Parker and his co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin, were accused of raping a fellow student in 1999. While Parker was acquitted due to a controversial reason (he had had consensual sex with the victim beforehand), I wish to say that I do not support or condone such a heinous act as rape or any form of sexual assault. Still, I was intrigued by the film’s subject matter as well as its status as an independent movie opening in theaters, and wanted to see it. Before I go on, I wish to clarify that viewing Parker’s art, even if he was under such allegations, is not the same as agreeing with the things he has done in his personal life. The movie is just art; it is not as if Parker is running for President.
The film follows Nat Turner (played by Nate Parker), a literate Black man who grew up a slave in the South. Nat Turner grows up to become a preacher to the other slaves on the Turner plantation. When his master, Samuel Turner (played by Armie Hammer), uses Nat’s talents as a preacher to keep slaves on other plantations silent and obedient, Nat sees the horrific treatment other slaves endure. After experiencing personal tragedy, Nat fights back against the plantation owners and incites a rebellion.
The Birth of a Nation is a brutal film, especially when compared with the real life riots in response to police brutality across the United States. The film contains strong violence of a graphic nature, as well as the horrific mental and emotional torture of the slave characters in the film. While the film takes some liberties in the historical story of Nat Turner, it is one of the most shockingly realistic portrayals of slavery and racism.
This is why it is so necessary to see it.
One hundred years ago, we saw the release of a film that vilified Black people in baseless propaganda. One hundred years later, we have a new type of film that attempts to portray the people involved in the Nat Turner Rebellion as three-dimensional characters, even the White slave owners.
The Birth of a Nation will not be in local theaters for long. I highly recommend you see it, with a group of friends or family if you can. Afterward, discuss the movie, and, in particular, discuss how far we have come in race relations and how far we still need to go. Because even if you think, “The old The Birth of a Nation came out one hundred years ago! People should stop complaining,” remember that a Black man writing, directing, and starring in a serious dramatic biopic with a mixed cast of Black and White actors would have been unheard of even thirty years ago.
The Birth of a Nation is rated “R” for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.