by Francesca Pan & Kierra Fletcher
Kierra and I chose the movie Nat Turner, the Birth of a Nation, for our encyclopedia assignment. This film, directed by Nate Parker, is a 2016 American movie. Nate Parker was also the main actor in the movie. Another main actor was Armie Hammer who represented Samuel Turner who was Nat Turner’s owner. Aunjanue Ellis in the movie is known as Nancy, the slave who was sold to Samuel and became Nat Turner’s wife. Penelope Ann Miller who played Elizabeth Turner, Samuel’s mother, taught Nat how to read and gave a Bible to Nat. The movie is based on a real story surrounding Nat Turner’s life. Turner was a slave who led the rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
The movie depicts the everyday life of a slave during that period of time. It shows how African-Americans were treated by white slave owners and what they had to endure. Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation is a moving film that contains a lot of hard scenes to watch. An example of these scenes is when a white slave owner broke the teeth of a black slave because he refused to eat what his owner gave to him. Another gut-wrenching scene is when Nat Turner got whipped by his owner and was left tied to a pole for the whole night. These type of scenes create an emotional response because of the graphic and heart-wrenching events that transpired. This portrayal raises awareness of the hardship of slavery which may give viewers a better understanding of the afterlives of slavery.
Historical and Cultural Context
This film Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation, was made in 2016 when there were numerous cases of police brutality against African-Americans. During these last years, we had several cases of police brutality in US that became viral all over the world. For example, one famous case was in 2014 when the teenager Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer because he stole some cigarettes. In the video and as the news report he had his hands up in the air and he was unarmed. Another example in 2014 was the case of Tamir Rice. Again, in 2014 a police officer used a banned choke-hold technique to kill Eric Garner, despite being unarmed. The article describes that Eric was “wrestled to the ground by several police officers after a complaint he was illegally selling loose cigarettes”. All of these are prime examples of how police kill or abuse African-Americans without justification, but because of their skin color.
With this movie, Nate Parker wants to remind us what African-Americans went through during the period of slavery. During this period slaves were treated as property. They were sold for money and forced to live in very poor conditions. Their lives did not seem like a normal human life. A scene of the movie shows clearly an auction where a young black girl was sold to the highest bidder. Another scene that exemplifies the life of slaves is when Nat Turner was brutally whipped by his owner in front of other people that could not do anything. We can connect it with the actual police brutality where white police officers kill black people without a valid reason. In the reading A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing, the author Victor E. Kappeler wrote “The birth and development of the American police can be traced to a multitude of historical, legal and political-economic conditions. The institution of slavery and the control of minorities, however, were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing”. With these words, Kappeler wants us to understand that actual police come from southern slave owners. It’s crucial to not forget the connection between past slavery and the present. This is going to help us understand certain police behavior in current time.
Kappeler also stated that racism and slavery are a huge problem since the XVII century. After the civil war, the legacy of slavery and racism were not disappeared but instead, with the pass of the time, we can say that the things were getting worse. Other than authorities, vigilantes’ groups born in this period. An example is the KKK group that was an extremely dangerous and aggressive group of white people who assault African American. There are too many similar aspects between slave owners and modern police that is impossible to ignore.
Although Kappeler talked about the similarities between slave owners and modern police forces, Thomas Gray and William Styron talk about the character Nat Turner presented in his time. Gray and Styron had two different depictions of Turner. Gray had positive views of Turner, calling him an “exceptional figure”, whereas Styron expressed negative characteristics of him. Nate Parker demonstrates these two sides of Turner in his movie. In the beginning of the movie, Turner was seen as an inspiring person leading others by the will of God. As the movie goes on however, a different side of Turner is shown as he is drawn to revenge and hate. The way that Nate Parker was able to display the different personalities of Turner that people had really showed how the hardships of slavery changed people of that time.
Themes and Style
The main theme in Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation, is how the scenes in the film create an emotional response from the viewers and raise awareness of how events in the past still affect us today. The director, Nate Parker used subtle hints in various scenes that reflect events that are happening today. An example of this is when the face of Cherry Turner’s face was shown mutilated after a vicious rape. This scene resembles the face of Emmett Till who was brutally murdered in 1955.
The tone of the movie has two completely different vibes if you compare the beginning and the ending of the movie. The first half of The Birth of a Nation is powerful and often inspiring. There is even a level of respect between Nat Turner and his slave owner Samuel. Turner is seen as someone who was driven by love and redemption. Once the movie is getting to its climax however, the demeanor of both men change. Samuel becomes unusually cruel to Nat, and Nat soon becomes driven by hate and revenge of those who have wronged him and those around him.
The film itself gives the viewer so many different emotions in each scene throughout the movie. In the opening scene, there are two little girls playing together; one black and one white. Everything about this seems to be normal, except the fact that the black girl has a rope tied around her neck like she is some sort of pet. This shows the viewers how poorly Caucasians thought of African-Americans at that time. The sound of the whip meeting Nat Turner’s flesh as his slave owner is punishing him is ear piercing and makes you flinch every time he is hit. These two scenes are few of many that make this film so moving.
The Birth of a Nation hit theaters in wake of the numerous protests and racial discriminatory acts by law enforcement. While making the final cuts to the movie and seeing the final product, Parker’s end goal was to inspire but not incite. The film is direct in its effort to connect America’s racist past to the present. Connections can be made of unarmed black men being killed today, to that of slave patrol in the film trying to kill Turner’s father who was an innocent man. Parker’s understanding of how the past is connected to the present is evident when he says, “If you look at history — if you look at the history, say, of how Southern police departments developed out of slave patrols — then you can better analyze where we are now”.
This film did a great job of connecting slavery’s past with the present. As stated before, there were many emotional scenes that replicated events that occurred in real life. This movie made a bold statement in terms of the racial issues we are still having in today’s society. Parker himself knew that his movie was going to make an emotional impact in society. “The reality is the birth of this nation is rooted in things we don’t want to talk about”. This quote represents The Birth of a Nation perfectly, because we have been ignoring problems surrounding racial tensions in both the past and present. There is no doubt that this film gave people a voice that previously wasn’t being heard, and actions are starting to be taken to make a change.
Although The Birth of a Nation did well in the box office, the film stirred up a lot of controversy. The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January of 2016 and was applauded for depicting an important untold chapter of American history. With the movie and the director, Nate Parker, getting buzz for the hit movie, Parker’s past came back to haunt him. Allegations that Parker, raped a female student in 1999 when he was a college wrestler at Penn State derailed the awards-season potential of Birth of a Nation, reviewer Brian Truitt from USA Today said in his article.
Along with the rape allegations, many other reviewers questioned the legitimacy of the information used in the movie to portray Nat Turner’s life and the rebellion. In another article, Kimberly Roberts talks about the accuracy of the film, Birth of a Nation. There were many reviews about the movie being a “disappointment” or “failure”. She then went on to say that everyone was entitled to their opinion but overall the movie was powerful and fearless.
The article, The Birth of a Nation and Nat Turner in His Own Words, written by David Kaiser touched on the fact that Nate Parker did not use much of the bibliography from Turner himself. While this may be true, the film was such a powerful monument that viewers can overlook that and still be able to relate to the torment the slaves felt.
Amongst all the negative comments made towards this film, there were many positive looks at how the movie was well directed and a reminder that change is needed today. In a different article that Brian Truitt wrote, Truitt explains that “there’s no question that what he puts on the screen is artistry that can’t be ignored”. Despite the negative feedback some reviewers gave to the film, the overall consensus was that the film was a monumental part in the continued fight for racial equality.
Breen, Patrick H. “’Birth of a Nation’ The Historian’s Review: A Scholar Considers Use of The Past in Parker’s Movie-For-Today.” Deadline, 7 Oct. 2016. deadline.com/2016/10/birth-of-a-nation-historians-review-use-of-past- 1201832168/
Kaiser, David “’The Birth of a Nation’ and Nat Turner in His Own Words.” Time, 9 Oct. 2016. time.com/4524172/birth-of-a-nation-nat-turner-confessions/
Roberts, Kimberly C. “Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ Powerful, Fearless.” Philadelphia Tribune, Oct 07, 2016. philly.com/philly/entertainment/movies/20161007_Well_worth_the_hype__ Nate_Parker_s_Sundance_sensation_The_Birth_of_a_Nation_is_a_powerful_chronicle_ of_American_rebel_Nat_Turner.html
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Panaram, Sasha, et al. “12 Years a Slave: Psychological Violence.” The Black Atlantic, 26 Apr. 2014. https://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/sample-page/contemporary-film-and-black-atlantic/violence-what-do-portrayals-add/the-help-violence-offstage/
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French, Scot A. “”The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1831).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 14 Sep. 2016. Web. 21 Nov. 2017. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_The_Confessions_of_Nat_Turner_1831