By Bonnie DeShong
Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s in the city Champaign, Illinois our history books didn’t dwell on Black history. We learned about Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, but Nat Turner and so many others were omitted from the very limited curriculum.
While in college in the 70’s, a Black History class professor of mine screened the D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film ‘Birth of a Nation,’ based on the book ‘The Clansmen.’ I’m not sure if that was a wise move on his part as we all were highly upset about the ignorance of the film and became quite vocal. This film went on to inspire the second and more powerful coming of the KKK.
As I sat in the theater waiting for Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” film to begin I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready for what I was going to see. What Nate brought to the screen is a powerful, emotional, poetic, courageous, and moving mixture of emotions so deep I could hardly breathe.
This film opens with African traditions. Bringing a child before the spiritual leader and being marked so he can always be found by another of his family or tribe.
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is a slave. We meet him as a child playing hide and seek with his playmate Sam Turner, the master’s son. Nat is a bright boy and is taken under the wing of his mistress and is taught to read the bible. That is the only book fit for slaves to read or know about. As he gets older playtime is over and life begins. He is sent to the fields to pick cotton, but on Sundays he is allowed to pastor a church for the slaves on the plantation. His boyhood playmate, Sam (Armie Hammer) is now his master.
This film is seen through the eyes of Nat. We see the importance and respect of marriage, and the acceptance that the couple may be separated and living on different plantations. We feel the hope of GOD’s deliverance through the sermons Nat delivers to the congregation. We see the love and blessing of their children and the importance that the legacy of the ancestors and history be passed on.
Nat is made to go from plantation to plantation to preach to the slaves that obedience to their masters is what GOD intended. However, the injustices that Nat sees opens his eyes on how the scriptures he speaks can be used to pacify or incite the listener. He is also prone to having visions. After a vision from an Angel, Nat begins to preach a revolt of the mind before he decides to put the revolt in action.
The bough cracks when Nat witnesses Esther (Gabrielle Union) being taken from her husband’s bed to the master’s house to be raped by a white guest. The bough breaks when Nat’s own wife (Aja Naomi King) is beaten and ganged raped by slave catchers.
Nate Parker took his spiritual belief, faith, and love of African American history and empowerment to bring this story to life. I had a conversation with him after seeing the film (my tape recorder did not record, but that is a whole different story for another time) and I was taken with his spirit and knowledge of history. We spoke about his focus on educating, instilling pride, and inspiring us to take ownership of our rich and powerful history.
After seeing this film I sat in my seat and cried. Not because of Nat Turner’s plight. All of those men that rebelled were free for 48 full hours of their life. I cried because of what is going on in our world today and how the strength and stories of our ancestors is not being passed down to our children so they can take pride in our history. Nate Parker has done a great service in bringing us the story of Nat Turner. Perhaps families will sit and research together, and stimulate conversation.
About Nat Turner:
The Nat Turner Slave rebellion took place on August 21, 1831 in Southampton County; Virginia after Nat sees an eclipse. He recruited 70 enslaved and free men and went from plantation to plantation killing over 65 people. Doesn’t sound like much to be known for, but this rebellion had the highest number of fatalities in a slave uprising in the south.
You must SPEND THE MONEY and see THE BIRTH OF A NATION in the theaters.
Until next time, keep your EYE to the sky!