An early scene in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation depicts the wedding of two slaves. As the bride and groom dance joyfully with each other in the midst of a circle of their fellow slaves, the group around them sings: “You got a right, you got a right, you got a right to the tree of life.”
Several scenes later, Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit plays as the camera pans out slowly to show a massive live oak tree full of lynched black bodies. It’s a nauseating image, and the two scenes draw a heartbreaking connection: In this world, oppressed people claiming their right to the tree of life can be a death sentence.
The Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, is not a perfect movie. As a recent essay in the New Yorker notes, 12 Years a Slave, the success of which undoubtedly paved the way for Parker’s movie, has a stronger narrative, and is a better piece of visual art. Nation’s treatment of Turner himself (played by Parker) leans more toward lionization — the film’s structure has much in common with superhero origin stories, as do several of its visuals — and less toward portraying Turner as the complicated man he surely was.
But where other films of its kind, including 12 Years a Slave, may end on a bittersweet but victorious note, the unrelenting grimness and detailed violence of The Birth of a Nation are what truly set it apart. This is, first and foremost, a movie about the violence committed against black bodies. It’s meant to remind audiences that the violence hasn’t stopped.
The film begins with Turner in his childhood, where he’s marked as a prophetic figure and the wife of his master teaches him to read the Bible. As an adult, Turner becomes a preacher, rented out by his master, Samuel (Armie Hammer), to preach a gospel of subservience to the slaves of local plantation owners. While visiting other plantations, Turner witnesses grotesque horrors of injustice enacted on fellow slaves, including one master who starves his slaves to cut costs and another who force-feeds a slave, first knocking out the man’s teeth with a hammer before shoving gruel down his throat.
These experiences, paired with the rape and beating of his wife, the rape of a friend’s wife, and a punishment in which he is beaten nearly to death, push Turner to his breaking point. Empowered by a reading of Scripture that he believes condones righteous violence against his masters, Turner gathers a group of fellow slaves and sets about rebellion.
Turner’s insurrection resulted in the deaths of, approximately, 55 white people. In contrast, 200 African Americans—nearly four times the number of Turner’s victims—were killed by white people in retaliation.
The Birth of a Nation is a film about suffering where the suffering doesn’t end. What liberation and feelings of retribution Turner and his followers are afforded are short-lived. The desecration of the body doesn’t even stop with death, as we learn in the movie’s postscript. It’s not a hopeful message, but in the midst of a time rife with systemic racism, it’s a strong expression of the weight of that uncertainty.
Given the sexual assault scandal surrounding Parker, the film’s co-writer, director and star, there are strong arguments for not wanting to support The Birth of a Nation. The decision of whether to see the film based on that factor is a personal one, and should not be taken lightly.
But as art, its message is timely, its harsh images necessary, and its emotion undeniable. It connects us, in a visceral way, with the pain and suffering of oppressed people, and asks us to understand the gruesome legacy of that oppression. Scandal or no, it’s a perspective worth considering.