Not Peace But a Sword: “The Birth of a Nation” (2016)

Not Peace But a Sword: “The Birth of a Nation” (2016) October 7, 2016

The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s searing life of Nat Turner, is a brilliant and iconic piece of Christian moviemaking–right up until Turner’s slave rebellion begins.

Birth has attracted intense controversy in part because of rape charges against both Parker and his co-writer. I’m not going to get into that, largely because you’ll have your own beliefs on whether or how those charges should color your ticket-buying decisions, except to say that the portrayal of sexual violence in the film itself is complex. It’s never presented in a dehumanizing or fetishistic way. And Turner’s wife goes on a spiritual journey of her own which mirrors (maybe too closely) her husband’s; she has some of the movie’s most unexpected lines. The women in this movie are less fully-developed than the men, maybe treated too much as inspirational figures, but they are not reduced to support staff or muse.

Birth is structured as a traditional childhood-to-death biopic. A birthmark on his chest sets the young Nat Turner apart, and in a vivid scene of the furtive survival of African traditional religion, he is told that he has a special purpose. He befriends a white boy, the son of the plantation owner, and a nice white slaveholding lady teaches him to read–although she makes sure he only reads the Bible, nothing too subversive. Nat becomes a child preacher to the white folks. His church features a bizarre mix of Catholic iconography (the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and Protestant everything else; I think this mixing of Christianities is deliberate, implying a universal complicity and serving as the white parallel of later images like a crucifix where Jesus has obviously African features. Although Nat is forced to return to picking cotton, he continues to preach to the slaves. And so when times get harder for the slaveholders of Virginia, they pay that nice white boy, all grown up now, to bring his black preacher to their plantations to preach to their slaves a gospel of obedience and submission.

The dehumanization and cruelty of American slavery hasn’t been hidden from us in the earlier portions of the movie, but when Nat begins to travel to other plantations, he and the audience get a harrowing tour of the torture chambers of the antebellum. There are unforgettable images here, like the little white girl running with a little black girl on a leash, and careful choices about when to cut away from brutality and when to show it. The clothes alone serve to show the deliberate humiliation of the slave system, as the masters wear old and worn but normal clothes and the slaves wear coarse rags.

Parker’s camera loves faces. Some reviewers criticized the many close-ups, but to me it was an obvious attempt to portray individual human dignity. And a successful attempt: The camera honors these faces, seamed or agonized or serene, white and black alike, and reveals the characters’ souls.

As a director and writer Parker makes a lot of choices that in less-competent hands would become sentimental. Some of them are sentimental: The recurring vision of a black angel, for example, is too saccharine and not eerie enough to be sublime. There is a lot of extremely generic inspirational-movie-scene music. Basically all of the music that isn’t African-inspired is terrible, and it nearly ruins the scene where Nat, after a brutal whipping, struggles to rise to his feet. But other scenes reach simplicity, not sentiment: the wedding-night scene with Nat and his wife in front of a twinned candle, or their courtship on a carpet of Southern blossoms, or a river baptism in which white humility and submission lead to hope, or Nat kneeling before his grandmother. There are lines that could still be said today (“You think you’re smarter than me, don’t you?” “They’re killing people everywhere for no reason but being black”) but these parallels are never underlined; they’re left for the audience to discern.

As the movie progresses, its exploration of Christian belief intensifies. Nat’s Christianity is essential to the film and provides most of its turning points. The New Testament really does contain counsels of peace and obedience in the face of oppression–but the slaveholders wanted the obedience without accepting that they were the oppressor. One of the movie’s most unexpected qualities is the attention it gives to white souls as well as black; the black souls are the focus, as they should be in this story, but again and again we see how a slaveholding Christianity inevitably damages the souls of the slaveholders. Birth explores, with empathy but without holding back, the myth of the nice white slaveholder. That little white boy who used to be Nat’s friend is the clearest example. When he grows up he expresses his guilt, like generations of white Southerners after him, through alcoholism; it’s a poor substitute for repentance and friendship, but it’s one he can afford. And none of the white churchmen can help him, because their souls too have been made slaves to systematic sin.

A major turning point–in which Nat obeys his increasingly-troubled conscience instead of his increasingly-degraded master–comes when Nat baptizes a white man, an outcast. This baptism overturns the racial hierarchy and leads to a ferocious confrontation in which Nat and a dissolute white preacher trade Bible quotations. “You were bought for a price,” Nat challenges, in one of the movie’s only explicit references to Jesus’ death, “so do not become slaves of men.”

There comes a point, as we knew there would, when Nat is ready to lead the slaves in violence. Parker’s performance has all the charisma this role needs. And yet here both the direction and the writing lose their individuality, and begin to dissolve into Hollywood revenge-fantasy. Here and there in the movie I’d thought that Parker overused that steely blue tone that so many movies rely on nowadays; pretty much the entire climax of the movie is shot in this cold, familiar blue grimth. The writing loses its honesty: The wife’s speech blessing Nat’s rebellion is a mass of cliches. The rebels are never shown killing anyone but adult men*, even though in the historical rebellion, they did not spare women and children. There was one moment when the audience with whom I saw the movie was made to feel genuinely uncomfortable with the rebels’ violence, but for the most part, the violence plays as morally-uncomplicated catharsis.

[*ETA: Apparently there is a brief image of the rebels killing a woman, which I missed. Also, I would frame things somewhat differently, but this Peter Chattaway post on religious violence in Birth is worth your time.]

The denouement, in which the rebellion unleashes white fury against the black population and Turner himself is executed in front of a cheering crowd, regains some of the film’s visual distinctiveness. Turner becomes a kind of Joan of Arc, the Christian soldier martyred, although the specifically Christian direction of his heart and soul no longer make much of an appearance. Birth never quite returns to the moral and spiritual depth of its earlier passages. But what it does well, it does indelibly.

Note: I saw a free advance screening via Patheos.

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