On August 21, 1831, Nat Turner, a slave who saw himself as a prophet, led a brutal revolt in Virginia’s Southampton County. He and his fellow slaves hacked up, beheaded, and shot not just white slaveholders but also their wives, mothers, and children. After the marauders were killed and/or captured, bands of white men took revenge by roaming the countryside, shooting and stringing up blacks willy-nilly. It was an unholy bloodbath. The “peculiar institution” would endure for three more decades, but slaveholders could never again be certain that the blacks who were their “property” — and whom they regarded, in some cases, as “family” — would not someday turn on them.
This is the story that the writer-director Nate Parker sets out to tell in The Birth of a Nation, but his audacious title tells you something else. He’s not just taking on the Confederacy and a legacy that’s still cherished in parts of the South. He’s taking on D. W. Griffith’s seminal 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, which sought to portray the aftermath of the Civil War — the “Reconstruction” — as the assault of lawless darkies on both the South’s social order and the virtue of its women. Griffith’s movie was also the most influential argument for vigilantism ever made. The Ku Klux Klan — a spent force by 1915 — was reinvigorated by a scenario that had its members doing what officers of the law would or could not. The Klan was a holy cavalry.
In his Birth of a Nation, Parker has taken the outlines of his story from history, his symbolism from Griffith, and his rhetorical strategy from Mel Gibson, who’s thanked in the credits and whose Braveheart has been cited by Parker as a favorite movie. This is not a garish vigilante cartoon like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It’s a religious epic, a battle between the use of Scripture that justifies enslavement for economic ends and Scripture that justifies violence to overcome it. Nat is not just a preacher but also a mystic. As in life, he is possessed by visions, and he launches his rebellion after a solar eclipse, which he perceives as a sign from God.
What isn’t as it was in life? Parker — who plays the grown Nat Turner — has left out the rebels’ butchery of children while ramping up the torture and killing of slaves. From Gibson he has learned the value of a creating a sadistic super-villain, in this case one Raymond Cobb (a smirking Jackie Earle Haley), whose assaults span decades. Cobb’s pursuit of the young Nat’s father (who has slipped out of the family shack in an effort to obtain food) drives the man from the county and nearly costs Nat his life. The most cathartic moment in the film is wholly fictional: Nat, at the end of his rampage, wrestling with Cobb over a knife. It’s Mel’s rules.
The problem is not that it didn’t happen in real life: All historical movies distort the facts, some obscenely. The point is that it does happen — all the time — in crude, dumb melodramas. Given that The Birth of a Nation was developed at the Sundance Institute and was rapturously received at its festival last January, I was surprised by how closely it conforms, beat by beat, to the most ruthless Hollywood vigilante template. It’s all about insults, emasculation. When a kind matriarch (Penelope Ann Miller) brings young Nat into her home to teach him to read, I waited for her to tell him that most of the books would be above the head of someone of his race. And she did. When, after the old master’s death, Nat was moved from the main house back to the cotton field, I hoped Parker wouldn’t show the boy promptly pricking his finger on a cotton plant — but he did, on cue. In life, the locals were upset with the preacher when he had the audacity to baptize a white man. In the film, they’re not just upset; the new master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), gives Nat a vicious public lashing, after which the overseer (whose name is Jethro) hisses in the ear of the bound, bloodied Nat that if Nat “comes out of this alive,” he’ll make what’s left of his existence a holy hell. The crucifixion imagery seems inevitable, but I didn’t think Parker would be so obvious as to play “Strange Fruit” over images of dangling corpses. His postscript — a shot of black men in Union uniforms charging enthusiastically into battle — is ludicrous, a mistake.
Although much of The Birth of a Nation seems bluntly calculated, there are moments when it’s worthy of its subject — when you understand the hosannas from festival audiences. In the rebellion sequence, Parker and the veteran cinematographer Elliot Davis create remarkable tableaux. In one ghostly image, Turner and his men evoke Griffith’s pale riders, but with a hint of Picasso’s Guernica — a glow suggesting that their deaths are preordained, that they’re already transmogrifying into spirits. Parker’s acting has more nuance than his directing. He has a soft, respectful presence, as if Nat can’t shake off the manners he learned from his white masters, and when he preaches to groups of wasted, dead-eyed men on the biblical justification for their captivity (plantation owners pay him and his master to help them keep their slaves opiated), you see his revulsion vying with his drive toward obedience. When Nat emerges from his Gethsemane, his eyes have changed: They’re fixed on nothing in this world.
Alas, it’s impossible to leave The Birth of a Nation without acknowledging the uproar surrounding its release. Parker has been busy answering for his role in a sexual assault while in college. The jury cleared him, but the jury that matters to the studio (which paid a record amount to acquire his film at Sundance) consists of Oscar voters — most of whom would have been poised to embrace a film like this after last year’s public shaming. Almost lost in the scandal is the impact of the film itself on our urgent, ongoing national conversation about how far protests against obvious injustices should go. The sad part is that one more simpleminded revenge saga will add very little to that conversation.
*This article appears in the October 3, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.