“Birth of a Nation” (2016)


Birth of A Nation (2016)


The story of America’s largest slave uprising, the Nat Turner rebellion, comes to the screen in a scathing film that is as controversial as a movie can be.   It doesn’t just “touch” what used to be the third rail of American cinema.  It embraces it with both arms and wraps its legs around the sucker until it smokes.  Prior to “12 Years A Slave” I’m not sure how long it had been since there was a serious major studio theatrical film on the subject of slavery that actually depicted slaves as human beings with “inwardness”.  Former slaves (“Beloved”, “Glory”), people on their way to being slaves (“Amastad”) and white folks talking about slavery (“Lincoln”).  But the thing itself?  What, “Mandingo”?   Please.  Maybe…”Skin Game” (1971) forty-five years ago?  With James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr.? Terrific movie, and it had to frame itself as a comedy to even be able to discuss or depict the issue.


Not an accident: the entire subject, 250 years which, depending upon perspective was either a glorious lost moment of American aristocracy (“Gone with the Wind”), or total crawling horror, the “original sin” of the American experiment.


So there is literally no way to make a film that would make both sides happy. Can’t do it.  People are welcome to believe that it was a benign institution “no worse than Irish indentured servitude” or that it was something of unique and pervasive destructive force, flensing millions of people of humanity while pretending they were born that way.  

I have no interest in arguing: you know which camp you’re in, and you know the implications of either path of reasoning.


“Birth of A Nation” is a single film in a sub-genre people were saying we’d seen “too much” of when it was a category contained almost nothing at all.  It is THAT painful a subject.   If you aren’t prepared to deal with real, crawling human horror, stay away.


That said, it is a flawed, wonderful, painful, and gloriously courageous movie in my humble opinion, hugely important and as much a litmus test for unconscious attitudes as one can imagine.  I cannot recommend it generally, as the story of a man who is brutalized to the breaking point (Remember Lonnie Athens rules to create a violent criminal?  Start with brutalization or “violent horrification”.  Bake for 250 years.  Serve hot) and the actions that result.  My own reactions spanned a wide range, but ultimately I walked out both crying and feeling happy that we are finally, after all this time, beginning to discuss this aspect of the past as we always should have.  

How many such movies should there be?  When there are as many hours of them as there have been of Civil War films, I will consider that discussion can validly begin. Until then, it is a distraction.

Nate Parker has made an important, scathing, difficult film, and I won’t rate it except to say it is both brutal and beautiful.   I didn’t want to discuss it until someone finally, on my FB stream, made a comment I knew was coming…

And it happened today.

At last!    Someone finally brought up the killing in “Birth of A Nation”, and whether the screen images matched the historical slaughter of slave owners (described in the post as “plantation owners”) and school children.   No, of course the filmed images weren’t as ghastly as the historical reality–but then that’s been true of 99% of the images of slavery as well.  Or the conquest of the Western frontier, or any number of other mythology-makers.   

One has two choices, basically: to ask what is different about the individuals that they would commit such acts, or ask what level of brutalization and dehumanization would create enough fear to create so much anger that it strips away social programming to manifests in such unspeakable horror.    I have no interest in arguing about it: the reader will sort themselves into their appropriate category based on how they react.

Those are the two basic positions:

Either we are different, and the different actions are expressions of some innate evil or good, or we are basically the same, and when you see differences in behavior across groups, it is wisest to assume that there is something different about the environmental conditions.  

To ask “how much pain would I have to suffer to strip away that much of my humanity?” is IMO the better path, and a path to wisdom and the resolution of apparent duality.

But the cost of that would be then asking of the slave owners: “what would have to happen to me that I would be willing and capable of applying or supporting the application of so much fear, pain, and horror to people to extract their labor to my benefit?  And to then support a cultural lie that they were born broken?”

The exact same willingness to see the basic nature of humanity, to go beyond the surface and ask: “why do we do what we do?” until we see that these actions are rooted in basic human fear and need…that exact same willingness is necessary to understand both.


To stop at the surface is to devolve into racism and bigotry: Nat Turner was a monster, as were his murderous followers who were sub-human beasts.  

Or: every non-Abolitionist white was a monster, and the entire fabric of white society was peopled by terroristic, murderous, raping, brain-washing, kidnapping and self-righteous sub-human beasts, deserving of what happened to them.

Or: we as flawed human beings are driven by fear and guilt, remain unconscious whenever it is convenient for us, consider ourselves so much better than those we need to hurt that it justifies whatever we do.  That this ability to reduce others to objects for our use or disposal can be seen in the behavior of almost any group who has ever stolen power from others.    There is no “terrible them.”  There is only “terrible us” when we fail to extend our humanity to others.

In other words: the harder it is for you to see how BOTH sides are behaving as humans do when they are unconscious to the spiritual reality of human Oneness…the more likely you would have been to do as they did.

That’s all it takes: to believe “they” are different.  That is the road to hell.   That is another tribe.   I won’t go that way, and neither will my brothers and sisters.





One comment

  1. Thank you for this post. Being sensitive to certain depictions of violence (I love horror movies but can’t stomach slashers or other gory films), for my own self-care I probably won’t see this film. I admire Nate Parker for making it. I’m in agreement with your views here; taking sides leads nowhere, only a holistic approach to slavery makes sense to me.

    OT, thank you for writing Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart. They are among my very favorite books, which means I keep copies of both in my personal library for re-enjoyment purposes. 🙂


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