The Birth of a Nation Downplays Nat Turner’s Fanaticism, But Can’t Figure Out What to Say About His Religion

One of the visions in The Birth of a Nation. Photo: FOX Searchlight

Nat Turner had distinctive blemishes on his chest and forehead, which supposedly marked him for greatness. He also had prophetic visions of angels battling in the sky, which convinced him he had been chosen by God. The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker's new biopic of Turner, includes the markings, and it's got the visions too, in the form of a series of dream sequences full of frenetic camera work and eerie, larger-than-life figures. Like the film’s title, taken from D.W. Griffith's 1915 Klan epic, the visions are marks of Parker’s ambition. He wants to make Turner’s story deeply meaningful, for it to resonate widely. But in those visions and elsewhere, Parker uses aspects of Turner’s faith in a generic portrait of Turner’s heroism, but fails to fully explore its context and meaning.

Accounts of Turner’s religious experience come primarily from the so-called Confessions of Nat Turner, an account of the conversations between the rebel leader, in the last days before his execution, and Thomas R. Gray, a white Southerner. Gray gives a portrait of Turner as a religious fanatic who believed that he communicated with the Holy Spirit and received visions that motivated his actions. (Birth of a Nation replicates one such vision, drops of blood that appear on a corn cob “as though it were dew from heaven.”) According to Gray’s account, Turner started his rebellion after witnessing an eclipse, and took up arms not for some worldly goal, but as part of a holy war. Gray’s account is accompanied by a list of the white people killed in the rebellion, and he routinely emphasizes how Turner and his men killed women and children indiscriminately.

As a white writer, Gray had good reason, willfully or not, to misinterpret Turner’s intentions. Since the publication of his Confessions, other writers have pushed back against his fanatical portrait of Turner. In 1967, the white author William Styron published the Pulitzer prize–winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, which tried to give “dimensions of humanity” to the man, and controversially portrayed Turner’s romantic interest in a white woman. A series of rebuttals, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, was published shortly afterward, setting the stage for a debate about which authors should get to tell slave narratives, and to what end. In Birth of a Nation’s press notes, Parker cites Stephen B. Oates’s The Fires of Jubilee, Scot French’s The Rebellious Slave, and William Sidney Drewry’s compilation of interviews with eyewitnesses to the insurrection that was published in 1900. Parker adds that Turner is no more “controversial” than other Americans who “made controversial decisions that decimated human beings in the name of seeking peace.”

The Birth of a Nation downplays Turner’s fanaticism, but Parker doesn't assemble his sources into a clear counterargument about his motivations. Parker often frames Turner’s sermons as reactions to recent atrocities committed against him and his fellow slaves. The eclipse, crucial in Gray’s telling, comes as an afterthought, as Parker’s Turner is more moved by the rapes of his wife and another slave, and the betrayal of his master (Armie Hammer). This is primarily an earthly revenge story, concerned with earthly goals and consequences — the lasting impact of the rebellion is seen at the end of the film, when a young black boy who observes Turner's lynching grows up to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Turner’s revolt mattered, Parker's film argues, because it had a lasting effect on history.

Birth of a Nation still includes Turner’s visions, but it's unsure what it wants to do with them. Rather than referencing scripture, these scenes draw from non-specific, vaguely African spirituality. As a child, Turner runs through a forest; he encounters a ghostly white figure (Parker himself); at times, a hooded man who looks suspiciously like Star Wars' emperor Palpatine lurks beyond a tree. The comparison is fitting: Like Star Wars, this is classic Joseph Campbell. The visions mean to tell us that Turner is gifted with some great purpose, he just has to realize his potential. In the New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham detected the traces of a superhero flick in Birth of a Nation: “Slavery is the setting for an elongated origin story, in which our hero, destined for greatness but restrained, for a time, by circumstance, emerges as a nearly supernatural force.” Parker is so tentative about Turner’s religion that he ends up telling the story of his life as a secular fable. When, after his lynching, Turner’s wife appears as angel, complete with Halloween-costume-ready wings, the effect is haphazard. After obscuring the revelatory aspects of Turner’s faith for so long, why deploy it now?

Parker resists saying anything bad, or even alienating, about his hero, which is another way of saying he doesn’t say much that’s specific. He sands away the jarring aspects of Turner’s history — the visions, the fanaticism — without which, it’s hard to understand Turner’s actions. What compelled him to take up arms and cause the loss of so much life, white and black? Parker has said in interview that violence wasn’t a necessary component of Turner’s rebellion, insisting that he would’ve used social media for protests today. But Turner didn’t live today. His rebellion can’t be all rebellions. His philosophy can’t be all philosophies. Turner was a product of his time, and of his faith — the complexity of which deserves to be explored. Turner didn’t use Facebook; he used a sword, and a Bible, which, by the way, now rests in the newly christened National Museum of African American History, for anyone who wants to interrogate Turner’s legacy on their own.