The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation hits theaters at a potent time. The Black Lives Matter movement is spurring protests in large cities, police shootings and killings of black men grab media attention, and polls reveal that racial misunderstanding is at an all-time high. Actor Nate Parker provides a 21st-century audience with another vehicle to discuss the knotty issues of race, early American history, and the use of the Bible by whites and African Americans. He co-produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in this biopic about the late 19th-century preacher slave Nat Turner.

Young Nat Turner was destined for leadership. During a manhood ceremony, the griot, “the keeper of history” among the people on the slave plantation in Southampton County, Virginia, told Turner that he would be a prophet endowed with courage, wisdom, and vision from God. He was set aside for greatness. There are some parallels here to God’s call on Moses.

In an early scene, Turner spotted a book on a chair and grabbed it. He saw the power of reading as the way to prepare himself for a vocation as a preacher. He was encouraged by the mistress of the house to read the Bible as the only book worth his time. Here again the Moses theme comes into play as young Moses was brought into the Pharaoh’s house to learn the ways of the Egyptians. But when the master of the house died, Turner was returned to the cotton fields, just as Moses was exiled after killing a fellow Egyptian and fleeing to Midian. 

Because of Turner’s ability to read and preach to fellow slaves, his master forced him to serve as a propaganda tool for other plantation owners. The contradictions of preaching that slaves should be submissive to their masters, set against the horrific conditions he witnessed, caused Turner to read the Bible differently. The tipping point of his transformation was violence against his own wife Nancy. This caused Turner to reinterpret the Scriptures through the lens of God’s righteous wrath against the evils of slavery and injustice. The target of Turner’s wrath was slave masters. Nat Turner led a band of slaves to travel to several plantations, killing whites in their homes.

The Birth of a Nation exposes the very different worlds experienced by whites and slaves in 19th-century southern religious and everyday life. Maybe Parker was arguing that history does repeat itself.
Rated R for disturbing violent content and some brief nudity. (Fox Searchlight)              

Editor's note: There has been controversy surrounding allegations made against actor/director Nate Parker personally. We have included a review of the movie based on the movie's merits, not on the merits of the filmmaker. 

About the Author

Reginald Smith is director of race relations and social justice for the Christian Reformed Church. He attends Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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