“Resistance lives in the air in this current moment. Anyone who sees this film should leave the theater and feel compelled to be a change factor with respect to relations that are taking place in this country,” said director, writer, producer and actor Nate Parker, 36, about his new movie “Birth of a Nation,” which opens across the U.S. this Friday in over 2,000 theaters nationwide.
The film, which recounts the violent 1831 slave rebellion envisioned and led by Nat Turner (1800-1831), also includes scenes from today’s numerous examples of outrage over fatal police shootings of Black men and has been released, according to Parker and Fox Searchlight, the distributor of the film, as an urgent call to action.
“When injustice knocks at our own front door, are we going to counter it with everything we have?” Parker asks.
Parker, in several interviews, emphasizes “the shortage of heroism” in the history he learned during his childhood in Virginia. He said not until college did he learn about Nat Turner, the central character in the movie. What troubled him most, he says: the fact that the revolt occurred less than 100 miles from his childhood home.
He became so taken by the life of Turner that he put his acting career on hold for two years and began seeking investors for his film.
Celebrated author William Styron published “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967, winning a Pulitzer Prize and later being awarded an honorary degree at Wilberforce University in Ohio.
Critics called the book a major accomplishment. However, many Black intellectuals refuted Styron’s account, saying “only the truth about Black people and the endless system of degradation and oppression to which they have been subjected . . . will set us all free from our racial nightmare.”
Parker’s film struck gold at the recent Sundance Film Festival in Utah, but it hasn’t put an end to the controversy over who has the moral authority to talk about the experience of slavery in the U.S. – a Black filmmaker like Parker or a white novelist like Styron.
For Styron, who died in 2006 at 81 and who, like Parker, grew up in Virginia near the site of the revolt planned and led by Turner, he would remark, “I wanted to portray an era of history which we are now beginning to understand to our enormous heartbreak and misery.” When he began writing the novel in 1962, which he described as one of the most haunting slave narratives – half a zealot’s accounting of faith and half a terrible reckoning of the revolt, he said his goal was to write “a meditation on history.”
Parker, however, has been adamant in pointing out distinguishing differences between the book and his film.
It remains to be seen whether Parker’s portrayal of Turner will successfully present the facts of history in a society that more often seems horrified by blackness instead of allowing blackness to be glorified.
But as Parker has been quoted as saying, “the need for a hero is different than the need for an historical reckoning and an understanding of what fostered this brutal revolt.”
Of course, we will have to see for ourselves.
Nat Turner’s Revolt: A Brief History
Turner, an enslaved African American, led a rebellion of slaves and free Blacks in Southhampton County, Virginia on Aug. 21, 1831, that resulted in the deaths of 55 to 65 whites. In retaliation, enraged white militias and mobs killed more than 200 Blacks in the course of ending the rebellion. In the aftermath, the state quickly arrested and executed 57 Blacks accused of being part of Turner’s slave rebellion. Turner hid successfully for two months. When found, he was quickly tried, convicted and sentenced to death and hanged. Southern states, including Virginia, passed new laws to control slaves and free Blacks. They prohibited education of slaves and free Blacks, restricted rights of assembly for free Blacks, withdrew their right to bear arms and to vote and required white ministers to be present at all Black worship services.