When I was studying film in college we were required to watch D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. That 1915 silent movie is considered the starting point of modern filmmaking as we know it. It presents the history of the United States as a white narrative in which the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes.
In The Birth of a Nation set to be released this weekend, Nate Parker appropriates Griffith’s title and presents a much more complicated history, one in which no one is a hero. Birth shows us that the violence and injustice we know today have their origin in the unholy union of unchecked racism and bad theology.
Set in 1830s Virginia, The Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. Much as Griffith artfully used the medium to tell his story, Parker uses beautiful cinematography and evocative performances to tell his. It’s one thing to write a book or an article about the horrors of slavery. It is quite another to see them — and Parker pulls no punches in depicting slavery’s indignities, injustices,and horrors. We watch how it dehumanizes not just its black victims, but also its white perpetrators. And it brings up many themes that will stay with viewers long after the house lights come back up.
Here are some of those themes:
1. The Problem of White Passivity
Only minutes into the film, we learn that young Nat Turner can read. His mistress learns this, too, and believes that his literacy is a gift from God that should be nurtured. Nat is moved into the main house and educated, reading Scripture in the white church where the Turner family worships and sitting next to Mrs.Turner during the service. It is clear that Nat holds a special place in his mistress’s heart.
But upon Mr. Turner’s death, despite her love and affection for Nat and the fact that she’s clearly a God-fearing woman, she honors her late husband’s request that Nat be sent out to the fields to work. It’s hard to judge someone of that time by the standards of our time — women did not have many rights, and it’s possible she was truly powerless to ignore the request. Still, this is an early example we see of a white person refusing to use their privilege or influence to stand up for what’s right.
This dynamic continues throughout the film — though Sam Turner, Nat’s slave owner, knows better, he allows a neighboring slave owner to rape Esther, one of his slaves. Sam profits off of Nat’s preaching as a way to quell a potential slave rebellion. He watches the way Nat is forced to twist Scripture for the benefit of his fellow slave masters, and rather than driving him to do something to stop the injustice he sees, it drives him to drink.
It would be easy to watch these scenes and claim moral superiority today. But as a white person watching this movie, I was confronted with my own passivity.
James Baldwin, the American author wrote about this white inertia:
“Northerners proffer their indignation about the South as a kind of badge, as proof of good intentions; never suspecting that they thus increase, in the heart of the Negro they are speaking to, a kind of helpless pain and rage -- and pity. Negroes know how little most white people are prepared to implement their words with deeds, how little, when the chips are down, they are prepared to risk. And this long history of moral evasion has had an unhealthy effect on the total life of the country, and has eroded whatever respect Negroes may once have felt for white people.” (The Price of the Ticket, p. 266)
I came away from the film asking the question: Knowing that I have white privilege, what am I willing to risk to further the cause of racial justice?
Which brings me to the next theme:
2. The Problem of Poor Theology
When Nat Turner enters the main house to being his studies with Mrs. Turner, he enters the family library and immediately reaches for a book on the shelf. Mrs. Turner takes it from him, explaining that those books were for white people and that he and his people wouldn’t be able to understand them. Instead, she gives him the “best book”: a Bible.
And just as Scripture is described as a “double-edged sword,” we see how dangerous the Bible can be when it is not wielded properly. It’s the Bible that Nat Turner is forced to use as a weapon to subdue fellow slaves on neighboring plantations (Nat’s master hires him out to preach throughout the county as way to make money and attempt to quell the slave rebellion that inevitably arises). And it’s the Bible that Nat Turner uses to justify taking up arms against the slave masters, brutally murdering many of them in their sleep. At one point, Isaiah Turner, the house butler, tries to stop Nat by reminding him that his role as a preacher was not to incite violence, but to “lead in love.”
Which for any student of Scripture and lover the Bible, is worthy of lament. Even more so because we are still finding ways to misuse and wound with words that should heal. The Bible is the “best book” because at the center of it is Jesus, embodied as a human, laying down his own life. Though we fall short, the Word shows us how much our lives matter to God. When wielded properly that Word has the power to free both the slave and the slave master.
It is that double-edged sword that should cut away all that keeps us from living out this truth.
Which brings me to the final theme:
3. The Problem of 'All Lives Matter'
When Esther is forced to have sex with the neighboring slave owner, her husband Hark pleads with Isaiah, the accommodating house slave trying to fulfill his master’s request. It is a scene that shows just how little black lives have mattered in American history. Esther and Hark’s marriage, their future, their hopes, and their own bodies do not matter when it comes to one white slave owner’s drunken request for “black meat.”
If we want to deceive ourselves and say that this history is not our current reality, this film will not let you. Because we see for ourselves in every video of an unarmed black man being shot and left to bleed to death. We see that for ourselves when young black women are tossed around in their classrooms or pushed into the ground like dolls.
The Birth of a Nation leaves you considering some hard truths: Do you believe that all lives — including black lives — matter to God? If so, what is our response? If God’s response to us was, in Jesus, to lay down his life: Are we willing to lay down our own to make that claim true?