The Birth of a Nation: A conversation with CLTure writers

A conversation about the critically acclaimed film, The Birth of a Nation 

Following an advanced screening of the controversial new film The Birth of Nation, a depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 black slave revolt against white southerners in the American South, our film critics Ryen Thomas and Michelle Wheeler discussed the film with CLTure film editor Dan Cava.

Dan Cava: Michelle and Ryen, it was wonderful to see this film together, and we very quickly burst into a killer conversation that I wanted to record here. There are so many other things to talk about that we can’t cover here (Nate Parker’s personal history, the film’s use of religion, etc), so hopefully the conversation below can serve as a springboard for others.

Ryen, why don’t you start us off. What are things swirling around your mind right now?

Ryen Thomas: I’ve seen numerous movies set during the time of slavery. The forgotten Disney film Song of the South depicts slavery as a possibly happy time while others have shown the real horrors of the era. The new Roots series that ran on the History Channel served to do that. However, Birth of a Nation stands out because it troubles me unlike other films by asking questions that rock me to my core instead of just allowing me to objectively watch a period flick. If Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing asked us, “What is the right thing?” Birth asks, “What would you do, if faced with oppression, and is THAT the right thing?”

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Dan Cava: The movie definitely comes down on the side of Nat Turner overall, but there’s enough ambivalence in there that the question lingers. Some of the killings during the slave rebellion are images that, outside of the context of oppression, we would normally see as cold-blooded murder. But with all of the systemic and personal horror we’ve seen earlier in the film, we the audience are forced to bear witness and decide where we stand on Nat Turner’s methods. The thing is, American audiences have been in this position many times before: Braveheart, The Patriot, The Last Samurai, etc. But THIS time, there’s no surrogate hero for white audiences. The movie is told entirely from a black character’s perspective. I think that presses on white folks like me in a new and, frankly, invaluable way. If you’re a white American, how can you think the American Revolution was a reasonable response to oppression and not think Nat Turner was at least on some level justified?

Michelle Wheeler: I agree with Ryen, there’s something really visceral about Birth that left me reeling afterward. Of course, I can’t identify with the person of Nat Turner on an experiential level, but I did connect with seeing this guy, who has had a relatively comfortable experience within a system where that isn’t the case for everyone, and who never thought about things changing or what his role might be in changing them until it became very uncomfortable for him personally. That really resonated with me and goes back to Ryen’s question. Nat Turner was oppressed when he was a comfortable slave, but it wasn’t until that oppression became a very heavy burden that he was moved to act.

DC: Right. That was something that I thought about for a while afterwards. In a sense, the slave system lasted as long as it did because, under its ghastly rules, the norm was survivable for its participants. The movie shows that slaves’ lives were not utterly joyless or ceaselessly violent. You could “keep your head down” and have a life that was just mostly terrible. That makes the system that much more demonic for our modern perspective, but it also illustrates that Nat Turner had to overcome the temptation of an existence that was, in its awful way, more comfortable than casting off his oppressors. It made me wonder what comforts could be blinding me from meaningful action, not so much on my own behalf, but on behalf of others.

RT: It’s significant because it forces the audience into the point of view of one of the slaves of that time and through him we have a story (that’s finally told) of empowerment and sacrifice. It’s the slaves who are shown in an empowered role. They are not just the victims waiting for a Great White Hope to save them. There’s no Abraham Lincoln or JFK. While President John Quincy Adams opposed the institution, it was dormant under Andrew Jackson, who succeeded him. There was no hope of escaping via the Underground Railroad and leaders like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas were not active yet. The film’s events take place years before the Civil War, so there’s no hope of looming emancipation being debated in Washington, DC. Putting it bluntly, the slaves were on their own and screwed.

MW: That’s an interesting point and maybe why this movie hits so hard. News of the rebellion travels and it, along with many other small sparks of action, eventually fan the flame that turns into emancipation. When the movie ends, even though you’ve just gone on this big, emotional journey and through really intense action, the characters are not left with much resolution, or even much hope that things will change.

RT: There is NO happy ending, despite how the director tries to tie it to the Civil War and create one. History pretty much viewed the revolt as an act of homegrown terror. A 9/11 on a community.

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

DC: Well, that’s the thing: “history” is malleable, and Nate Parker knows that. There’s a mystical undercurrent laced throughout the movie, and Parker leverages that to spiritually connect Nat Turner’s actions to the overall struggle for black freedom in America. (Again, I think of Braveheart, which Birth references rather directly at times, thematically and visually.) I think this is a storyteller’s deep prerogative, to repurpose history and reinterpret it. Shakespeare did it. Oliver Stone still does it. And D.W. Griffith sure as hell did in the original Birth of a Nation, the 1913 silent epic that infamously depicted the KKK as the righteous heroes of the South. Parker’s Birth is almost like an act of revenge against the 1913 original. It’s kinda genius in a self-reflexive way. The new Birth is itself an act of revolt; it’s black revisionism that doesn’t “play by the rules.” It’s a cinematic overthrow.

MW: There’s a lyric in the musical Hamilton that I think of often, and was reminded of when watching this movie. The line says “I’m watching the after-birth of a nation.” It’s such a graphic image. Here you had these revolutionary forefathers who started a war, earned their freedom, and now they’re like “um, okay, we have a country, now what?” It’s not like all of their problems were solved as soon as the war was won. It’s been a few hundred years and we’re still trying to work out what we want this country to look like! And even though I get what Parker was doing with the title, I almost wish he had called the movie “The After-Birth Of A Nation,” because that’s really what I felt like I was watching and what these stories represent. The thing that I’m still processing, and I think I will be for a long time, is this idea that comfortable people do not rebel. It’s not like you don’t know that horrors exist, but as long as they don’t affect you in a direct way, you can live for a long time without feeling any urgency to change things. That was true of the people who fought in the revolution as well as Nat Turner and the people around him.

DC: This is certainly true of the white characters in the film, some of whom seemed to recognize on some level that they coexisted and participated in an unfair, murderous system but, even while regretting some of its harsh results for black people, never seemed to fathom the idea of participating in that system’s undoing. I’m white and still this depiction seems very fair to me. In the movie and indeed in reality for many slaves of the time, they flat out did not encounter white people who were aligned with them. But the lack of urgency is also shared by some slaves as well: the house servant for one, whose better treatment certainly looms over his decisions, but also those who worried that the backlash from an uprising would be more disastrous than their current conditions.

RT: Are blacks now too comfortable to fathom doing anything similar to Nat? Are the stakes really that high? And would such a rebellion or ANY rebellon be in vain, considering that it can get squashed fast similar to thanks to US drones and the possibility of a militarized police state. I despise the view of the male house slave, but darkness creeps in because I wonder if he was right? Does rebellon only create more bloodshed and strengthen/justify the police state?

MW: That is a really heart-breaking thing to think about– that there are people who see how things need to change, but are scared to rage against the machine because it might make things worse.

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

DC: Michelle, on some level, this is the real value of the movie to me, and to movies like this. It allows us to go through a kind of simulation where we get to consider these things from the safety of a movie theater, so that we can form and shore up new values to use in our actual lives. We can be roused for a time to think about the questions Ryen is asking. In our case, here in Charlotte, with the protests following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, we have a very tangible circumstance to which we can respond in some way.

Parker ultimately makes a metaphysical argument, telling us that the facts of the terribly tragic short-term consequences of Turner’s rebellion are redeemed by their legacy, a legacy that Parker is both shaping and championing with the film. I think Parker’s conclusion is that the blood of righteous martyrs is the seed of continued righteous resistance. To what extent he (or we) can apply that to today’s problems is what the movie, by its very existence, is asking us.

RT: The matriarch of the family who owned Nat Turner stood out to me in particular. She encouraged Nat to learn to read when he was a child, and even though it kind of comes off similar to an owner teaching his dog new tricks, I still believe her heart was in the right place, in the context of her era. It would be unfair to judge her by today’s bleeding heart standards.

MW: I thought the same thing. The scene where she puts young Nat on the church stage to read from the Bible was awkward– like you said, Ryen– like a dog owner showing off a new trick. The movie depicts her as not someone who was trying to change anything really at all  but someone who genuinely thought she was doing something good for someone less fortunate.

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

RT: That said….There are many silent whites like her today who don’t speak up about racial inequality. How should we respond to them, when they know something is wrong and yet remain silent?

MW: For me personally, that has been an idea I’ve been wrestling with in a more direct way the last few years. Understanding that even though American slavery no longer exists the way we see it in Birth, there are subtle and blatant ways white people are still privileged in our society. As a white person, are there places I should be going to or ways I should be using my voice to work for racial equality? I think that’s a really individual thing each person has to answer, but I was surprised by how clearly the line was drawn between what was happening during Nat Turner’s time and what’s happening around us now. The movie challenged me not just to think about what my response would have been back then, but what should it be now.

Dan Cava, Michelle Wheeler, and Ryen Thomas are Charlotte-based TV/film/video professionals, as well as film critics for CLTure.

Birth of a Nation opens in theaters everywhere Friday, October 7th.

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