The Birth of a Nation

Slavery may have ended in 1865, but racism permeates our society to this very day.

the-birth-of-a-nationTo begin with, let’s stop all the criticism about the fact that Nate Parker, the director, writer and star of The Birth of a Nation, had previously been charged with rape. He was acquitted, and that has to mean something in our society. After all, while the legendary Errol Flynn, Director Roman Polanski and Woody Allen have all been accused of sexual misconduct, they continue to play a role in the cinema. Other than the fact that they are white and Nate Parker is black, what is the difference?

However, while The Birth of a Nation is a significant film, its great strength is also its weakness. From an emotional standpoint, this is not an easy film to sit and watch. The story of the wretched existence of black American slaves has been previous confronted in Alex Haley’s Roots (1977), Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013). While I don’t mean to be unduly critical of Mr. Parker’s film, I thought all three of the above films were far better at confronting this stain on our national heritage.

The story of Nat Turner was told long ago in William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). Both the book and the movie described the life on slave plantations in the Antebellum South, and it hurts to be reminded of the truth.

In a nutshell, Nat Turner became a preacher used by his owner, Samuel Turner (Armi Hammer), to spread the gospel to other plantations. The uneasy white owners sought to find a way to comfort rebellious slaves while Mr. Turner found the opportunity to pocket some money in the process.

Additionally, Aja Naomi King stands out in her performance as Cherry, Nate’s wife. She is brutally raped by a slave catcher group led by Jackie Earle Haley, and that moment leaves you gasping for breath.

While Mr. Styron has been criticized in some quarters for painting Mr. Turner as a psychopath, it is apparent from this film that he was driven to madness. Having absorbed all of the trauma that he could, he led a rebellious group to brutally hack to death some plantation owners and their families over a two day period. Subsequently caught, it gives nothing away to say that they were hung in public as a large white crowd mocked them.

The real value of films like The Birth of a Nation is their contribution to American history. Not only did slavery in our country span over three centuries, it still existed after the writing of our Declaration of Independence. While we honor both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with their busts on Mount Rushmore, we should not forget that they were both slave owners to their deaths.

Tragically, while we freed the slaves in 1865, we did little more than say, “You’re on your own.” What’s worse, it was followed by the Ku Klux Klan, segregation and rampant discrimination, and we continue to ignore the catastrophic after effects that haunts our country to this day.

It is worth keeping in mind that if some country would have told us in 1830 to eliminate slavery, we would have responded, “Mind your own business.” Maybe we need to be a little more careful when criticizing other countries, particularly in the Middle East. Is it possible that they just need more time to evolve as we did?