Monday, October 10, 2016

“The Birth of a Nation”

The 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” was the first movie to be shown in the White House. Based on The Clansman, Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel, D. W. Griffith’s ground-breaking movie has been broadly criticized through the years because of its blatant racism and its glorification of the KKK.
This past weekend a movie with the exact same name was widely released. The new film is mostly about Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who in 1831 led the first major slave rebellion in the U.S. Nate Parker, the director, splendidly plays the adult Nat Turner in the movie.
Parker (b. 1979), in his directorial debut, made history at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: he sold the film’s distribution rights to Fox Searchlight Pictures for $17.5 million, the most ever paid for such rights. 

In preparation for seeing Parker’s new movie, June and I recently watched “12 Years as a Slave.” That graphic film of the terrible abusive treatment of Solomon Northup, an historic person, and other slaves began in 1841, ten years after Turner’s failed revolt. Perhaps the extremely harsh treatment of the slaves then was partly because of that revolt.
The 2014 Oscar for Best Picture was given to “12 Years as a Slave.” Parker, no doubt, has dreamed of his movie being equally successful. Even though not convicted, his chances greatly dimmed, though, with the report of his being charged with rape when he was a college student.
In Parker’s movie—and surely we need to evaluate it rather than the morality of the director and main actor—Nat Turner is first shown as a precocious boy eight or nine years old. Parker, then, portrays Turner as a winsome adult: gentle, soft-spoken, and very likeable.
While perhaps enhanced for its dramatic effects, true to extant historical information, the mistress of the plantation taught Nat to read, mostly by using the Bible, when he was a boy. Then when he was young man, he became a preacher. Interestingly, Turner’s Bible is the only artifact of his in the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Turner, however, was told what passages of the Bible to use in his sermons as he was taken from one plantation to another by his master—for a fee. In that way he was used as a means to keep the slaves docile and subservient.
Seeing the pitiful condition of slaves on neighboring plantations where he was taken to preach, Nat became more and more dissatisfied—so he began to read the Old Testament where God commanded killing of enemies. He began to feel that was what God was calling him to do also, with the help of the fellow-slaves around him.
Thus, the 48-hour rebellion occurred. It took the lives of around 55 whites but about four times that number of blacks. Nat himself was hanged three months later, in November 1831.
"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." Those words by Thomas Jefferson appear on the opening screen of the movie.
It is certainly obvious that Nat Turner, and other slaves at that time, were treated very unjustly—and most slaves even more unjustly than Nat. Still, it is difficult to see how Nat’s rebellion in any way helped to awaken God’s justice—at least in the 1830s.

Maybe Parker’s splendid movie of Nat Turner will help bring about greater justice for the descendants of slaves of the 1830s, though. I pray that it will. Black Lives Matter.


  1. Poor timing for this movie. My wife went to see it, and is worried about me going down to work with my clients in central city, for fear of the BLM movement looking for revenge on someone with the wrong amount of melanin. (I have been threatened down there before (and mugged at gun-point), but the people still need assistance.) It is also where I go to church.

    What is missed is that this is still a practice in much of the world, especially in Muslim countries, but is also within our own country - I have seen it.

    Avoid BLM, but we do need to build friendships and be of service to all people - even in bad areas.

    1. Let me just respond to what Anonymous said about BLM. Earlier this month I wrote a review of Leroy Barber's 2016 book "Embrace: God’s Radical Shalom for a Divided World." Barber is an African-American pastor and has worked with various organizations seeking to create peaceful communities for some 30 years.

      The last chapter of Barber's book is “Yes, Black Lives Matter,” and a significant part of that final chapter is “Debunking the Myths of #BlackLivesMatter.”

      I encourage you who are interested in thinking more about this to check out the book review, which I have posted here:

    2. Good theory. But watch the news - today.

      I have a deep appreciation for Dr. John Perkins, a key influence in why I remain engaged where I am. But neither do I close my eyes to reality, or deny experience.

    3. Well, I have watched the news, checking online news regularly, and I have not seen one instance of any unrest fomented by the movie.

      In addition to the reviews, about all I have seen in the news is from people (mostly women) who claim the movie did not treat rape and the position of black women adequately--and there are others who are boycotting the movie because of Parker's alleged rape.

  2. This movie has had quite a bit of publicity as it approached its opening. Trying to redefine the name "Birth of a Nation," dealing with rape, slavery and rebellion, and finally facing old charges of rape against himself, Nate Parker grabbed just about every live wire within reach in trying to bring this challenging project to life. The movie even involves a "Nate" trying inform the life of a "Nat." From what I have read, I gather that both the strength and the weakness of this movie comes from this deep immersion. We may be several movies into his career before we begin to get a clear handle on his potential in creating movies. I hope all this uproar indicates the birth of a genius.

    For a sample, here is a link to a review in the New Yorker:

    1. Thanks, Craig, for your comments and for linking to the review of the movie. I had read a few reviews of it but hadn't seen the one in the New Yorker until just now.

      While I have grave doubts about the wisdom, and the ethics, of what Nat Turner did, I am more positive about the movie than the writer of that review--and of others I have read. I am not sure he could have done a lot more in a two-hour movie; it was a movie about Turner, and I thought Parker did a good job making it and playing the part of Turner.

  3. Here are pertinent comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "The Chicago History Museum has a gallery dedicated to the fight for civil rights and human dignity. About one-half of the gallery is dedicated to the fight by African-Americans for equal rights; it documents some of the horrific treatment suffered in the past by our African-American brothers and sisters. The rest of the gallery is dedicated to the fight for equal rights by women, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans.

    "America has made substantial progress toward equal rights and toward the recognition of the full dignity of every human being, but there is still a ways to go. I too hope that Parker's movie will help."

  4. An esteemed local Thinking Friend commented, "As much as is humanly possible for a white man, I sympathize with Nat Turner. I have not seen the movie."

  5. I, too, have great sympathy for Nat Turner and am indignant at how he and the slaves around him were treated.

    Still, I don't think the rebellion he led had any positive effects. In fact, it probably made the treatment of slaves even worse (as I indicated in my reference to "12 years a slave."

    Violence is not the solution to violence.

  6. I don't have time to see many movies these days, but I was interested to learn more about this movie from your blog posting here, Dad. I would recommend the PBS documentary "Africans in America" ( which has an excellent section on slave rebellions, including the one led by Nat Turner. I often show that excerpt in my American Religion course.

    1. Thanks, Karen. We will try to watch the PBS documentary soon. They generally do a good job on any subject they cover, and I will be interested to see how they portray Nat.

  7. I place "12 Years a Slave" along with "Django Unchained" and "The Butler" under the category of "Divisive Mischief" in "The Charlottesville Operation."