As “Black History Month” winds down in the Anglo-speaking world, I decided to write a review of a fairly engaging movie which I watched a couple of nights ago, it’s called “Birth Of A Nation“. The title is ironic, of course, a deliberate reference to the 1915 D. W. Griffith movie, whose original title was “The Clansman”. Clan, as in Klan, as in Ku Klux Klan. The Griffith piece laid the propaganda groundwork, later amplified by Hollywood mega-blockbuster Gone With the Wind, in depicting Southern white slave owners as the good guys. And marauding Negro ex-slaves as the bad guys. These movies also promoted the notion that the Confederacy were the good guys in the Civil War, that the victorious North treated the South unfairly; and that African-Americans are shiftless, violent, and basically criminal-minded. An attitude which persists to this day, especially in ALT-RIGHT political circles, newly emboldened by the so-called “scientific racism” of bogus DNA studies.
Within the white slave-owner propaganda worldview, the very worst kind of black man of all is a type like Nat Turner. A violent smartass who finally snaps at the injustice of it, picks up an axe and just goes medieval on Whitey. Burns the mansion down, everything and everybody inside it. This is, of course, the slaveowner’s worse nightmare, as he lies trembling in his bed, wondering if Rastus will bust in on him in the middle of the night wielding something sharp and pointy. Back in ancient times, the Romans were so terrified of their slaves that they passed draconian laws to the effect that, if any slave killed his master, then all of the slaves in the household, even the loyal obsequious ones, must be tortured and put to death forthwith. Pour encourager les autres, as the Frenchman says. Can you even imagine Scarlett O’Hara torturing Mammy?? Yeah, that skinny white bitch would do it in a heartbeat, if she felt that her economic livelihood was at stake. Marxism 101, Ladies and Gentlemen.
So, yes, Director-Actor-Producer Nate Parker’s ironic “re-make” of “Birth of a Nation” is the semi-fictionalized story of Nat Turner. I think I was about half an hour into the film before I figured that out. “Ah yes! The hero’s name is Nat, and his massa’s name is Sam Turner, hence….. – duh! Uh oh, I think I know where this story is headed…”
But before I get to Nat, I have to mention something about Nate. I wasn’t aware of this story before I googled him; but apparently Nate has been a tad rapey in his past. And Lillian Gish would have been shocked (or maybe not) to learn that Dignified Black Man Nate was accused of raping a woman during his College Daze. A white woman, no less! One of those druggy date-rape sort of things, when Nate was an asshole jock on his college’s wrestling team. And this happened at Penn State, also notorious as the pedophile hunting ground of Jerry Sandusky. A college where sexual harassment and sexual assault were not only tolerated but highly encouraged! Nate has always maintained his innocence in the rape charge; and was acquitted moreover, even without having to hire Atticus Finch as his defense counsel. The girl who accused him had mental health issues and ended up committing suicide, so nobody cares about her any more. Guilty or innocent, in his official utterances Nate comes off as a macho jerk. Like, he would never play a gay role because that would be an affront to his masculinity. Hey man, if Horn-Dog Robert Downey Jr. can play a faggot, then so can you!
All this proves is that even a jerk can produce a decent film. And ironically (or not), one of the main themes in this film is the violent rape of women. Of black women, at the hands of their white masters. And these are no drunken frat boys either, they are horny Southern gentlemen who always have a flask of brandy in their pocket and who know their way around the proper end of a bullwhip.
Why Do Slave Rebellions Always Fail?
Nat Turner was an actual historical figure. As his wiki page describes, Nat led a rebellion of slaves in Southhampton County, Virginia on August 21, 1831. “The rebels went from plantation to plantation, gathering horses and guns, freeing other slaves along the way, and recruiting other blacks who wanted to join their revolt.” I had vaguely heard of this story before, and had the impression that the rebellion lasted a long time, at least several months. Now, that would have been something to cheer for! Alas no, it barely lasted a day.
It must have felt good at the time to roam around, even just for a day, getting even with Whitey for all the past whippings and indignities. But, unfortunately, slave rebellions always get put down eventually. Just not always this quickly. (Only exception I can think of off the top of my head: Haiti.)
People think about this issue a lot, and don’t understand why force of numbers does not ensure victory. As Nat himself pointed out to the doubters, the slaves in that country outnumbered the white folk many times over. Logic should have it, that numbers would prevail, no? No. It’s the same time of reasoning which baffles people when they read about some single armed intruder controlling an entire room full of people. Or about thousands of Jews marching compliantly into the gas chambers when the only thing between them and the open road is a handful of men with guns, plus some snapping dogs.
It’s just the way things work, folks, no matter how counterintuitive it seems. Those revolting slaves never had a chance. What territory could they possibly capture? Where could they posibly flee to?
Final tally: Nat and his Negro rabble army were able to kill 55-65 “white people”, aka plantation owners and their families. It’s what they call “a good start”. But the sequel is called “Cracker Fights Back”. Army and militias killed around 200 blacks (and that’s a low estimate), many of them complete innocents, not even involved in the aborted uprising. Repressive legislation was subsequently passed targeting ALL blacks, including freemen. In short, Nat’s temper tantrum did much more harm than good to the Negroes of Southhampton County, Virginia. Moral of the story: If you are going to rebel against an unjust economic system, then make sure you have an adequate arsenal. AND A PLAN, MAN! Don’t just run around half-cocked shouting slogans.
Race War At Its Finest
Returning to the fictional version of the story: I think that Nate Parker does a very credible portrayal of Nat Turner, although in some scenes I swear that he physically resembles a younger version of Snoop Dogg. This was particularly upsetting to me during the whipping scene: The notion of my beloved rapper Snoop being tied to a post and bull-whipped until he is bleeding from the mouth, is absolutely shocking.
But it takes a couple of hours to get us to that disturbing scene. The movie starts off more idyllic-like, with little Nat and little Sam (the white boy) good pals. They run around the plantation playing hide-and-seek, and it’s so sweet; and then Sammy grows up to be big strapping blonde hunk Armie Hammer. And Armie behaves reasonably decently towards his former childhood friend and now personal slave, Nat. But anybody who has watched Mandingo or Roots knows exactly where this story is going. White people can never be trusted. Sure, they’re cute when they’re children. So are baby scorpions. But eventually white babies grow up and tie you to that whipping post. Why? Because they own your ass, that’s why. Marxism 101!
As the film begins, we see Nat as a small boy with a pattern of moles on his chest. An old-timer from the team who still remembers Africa, and who was an African witch-doctor in his time, predicts that Nat will grow up to become a prophet and leader of his people. The child listens with intent eyes. He believes the prophecy and this makes him uppity.
The Great White Plantation Mistress, who is actually a halfway decent soul, allows the talented child to learn how to read. This is a huge development. Most slaves are punished by death if they even attempt to acquire some book-learning. And there was a very good practical reason why the slave-owners didn’t want their slaves to read and write: For example, Little Nat is able to forge dummy passes so that his dad can safely sneak off the plantation at night to poach for food. Other main reason being: If blacks can read, then they can read the Bible for themselves, and all the juicier passages about Israelite bondage and so on; and not just the “acceptable” passages about how slaves should submit to their masters.
Nat grows up with a double career: Cotton-picking field hand by day, and Preacherman by night. Nat studies the Bible intently, the only book he is ever allowed to read. He sees that, for every passage in the Bible giving one point of view, there is another passage laying out the opposite point of view. Nat’s increasingly impoverished master Armie, in order to earn extra cash to keep his plantation afloat, loans Nat out to the neighbors. Nat, the Preaching Negro, is a curiosity in the county. He preaches to restless slaves this one passage from the New Testament (1 Peter, Chapter 2):
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.
But secretly Nat reads the rest of the Bible, including the Old Testament, and including some of the more genocidal passages, for example, the one about slaying the Amalekites, every last one of them, man, woman, child, suckling, and even their household pets. Nat wishes that he could preach these passages as well, during his itinerant missions. But Whitey always keeps a close eye on him. It is only later in secret midnight meetings with his supporters that Nat reveals some of the dicier Biblical passages.
Chosen By God
Eventually Nat comes to believe his own propaganda. Namely, that he was chosen by God to free his people. After Master Armie turns on him (for a very minor offense) and has him brutally whipped, Nat decides that the Day of Vengeance has arrived. He gathers his followers, and they choose their time. Initially they have the right idea: They will attack the County armory and acquire weapons. Their attack leads to a short but intense battle, involving hand-to-hand combat with a bunch of white crackers. One of the few good things about a race war, I reckon, is that it makes hand-to-hand combat highly plausible, even while not wearing uniforms. No irritating “friendly fire” incidents!
In the end, sadly, all of Nat’s efforts are fruitless. The rebels are captured and hanged. Nat escapes briefly, but is forced to turn himself in as innocent blacks are being punished right and left. One was almost expecting a “Spartacus” type moment when the slaveowner demands, “Which one of you n-words is Nat Turner?” And everybody yells: “I be Nat Turner!” “No, I be Nat Turner!”
This bleak movie does leave us with one ray of hope, thankfully. As is de rigueur for the rules of this genre, one must portray the unsuccessful rebel as, at the very least, a forerunner of better days.
And sure enough: Throughout the movie there is the character of a young black boy on the plantation who watches and observes everything with wise, but worried eyes. The young boy joins Nat’s rebellion, but soon deserts, unable to stand the sight of bloodshed. At the end we see him witnessing Nat’s gruesome hanging, and then there is a brief fade-in to a future scene: It is 30 years later and the frail boy, now a strapping man, is fighting in the Civil War, on the side of the victorious North. Backlit by the American flag as he storms the Confederate positions. In other words, that young scared boy grew up to be Denzel Washington!
This is the final payload scene, and also the decoding of the film’s title.
In conclusion: Go see this movie!