The Birth of a Nation is a riveting account of long ignored slave history

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NATE PARKER AS Nat Turner after the Nat Turner Rebellion began and the group smelled victory in their uprising of slave owners.

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago crusader

The Birth of a Nation” is such a disturbing movie, but I know that it is based on a historical event. Director Nate Parker, in the role of celebrated slave Nat Turner, is a seasoned actor, but post-production he met with some controversy around his rape acquittal while he was in college.

The film centers on Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which occurred in Virginia in 1831, after Nat decides he has just had enough of the inhumane treatment under which the slaves were living. He had picked cotton as a young boy, and later was taught to read—but only the Bible. Nat’s father, played by Dwight Henry of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” was forced to leave the home, when he killed a white man after he was caught stealing food.

As the years progressed, Nat was an expert reader and eventually his master Samuel Turner, with whom he had an amicable relationship, used him to go around and preach Baptist doctrines to other slaves, as a way to make them more cooperative and less likely to revolt. His preaching helped pay off his master’s debts.

NAT TURNER GIVES Cherry flowers during the beginning of their courtship. (Photos Courtesy of The Birth of a Nation Facebook Page).
NAT TURNER GIVES Cherry flowers during the beginning of their courtship. (Photos Courtesy of The Birth of a Nation Facebook Page).

Nat wasn’t thrilled about doing this, but he complied until one day he had reached his limit—therefore the plan for the revolt. He had been beaten, because he took it upon himself to baptize a white man. He was beaten so severely that I believe it knocked some sense in his head that he and the Good Book were being used to brainwash the slaves into believing that God agreed with the violent environment in which they had been kept and conversely agreed with the white masters’ need to keep them as property. His grandmother and mother nursed him back to health, but the task was too much for his grandmother, who had revealed that she had seen this all before, lamenting the fact that any white master is able to break down a strong Black man.

During the time before the rebellion, Nat was able to marry and have a child; other couples living around him were also married and enjoyed as best they could some good times among themselves. However, his wife was savagely beaten and raped, and another woman in the area, who was played by Gabrielle Union, was raped. As the film showed Nate’s wife immediately after the rape, the image reminded me so much of Emmett Till, when he was laid to rest in Chicago. I didn’t take this as being just a coincidence, neither did I take a comment made by one of the female slaves after the rebellion had began that “The whites were killing us, just because we are Black.”

Many lives were lost; the first one being Samuel Turner, as he lay drunk in his bed, Nat gave him a few slices with a machete. One by one, Nat and the other men went to the white homes and killed the masters and destroyed property, until they were able to get to a spot called Jerusalem to gather up an arsenal. Historical accounts tell us that this was the first successful, sustained rebellion by slaves against whites in the United States. It lasted about two days and around 65 white people were killed. Nat was captured and eventually hung.

Many people know about this insurrection, while many others may not. Parker’s Oscar-worthy reenactment brought it all to the big screen. As mentioned above, Parker is being maligned by critics, when other directors are able to create more art even after similar unacceptable acts or damning statements, i.e., Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson. Parker hasn’t spoken much in his defense, but he has brought to America’s conscience a historic event covered from the perspective of the slaves, albeit reportedly some events may not follow historical accounts.

Besides Union and Henry, Roger Guenveur Smith plays a house slave whose character reminded me of Samuel L. Jackson’s in “Django Unchained”—he didn’t agree with the rebellion and voiced his opinion that Nat would get them all killed. He figured the slaves were better off being slaves. I also noted white actor Jackie Earle Haley who plays the villain well; Aunjaune Ellis; Colman Domingo and Penelope Ann Miller. “The Birth of a Nation” is in theaters everywhere.

52nd Annual Chicago International Film Festival

The 52nd Annual Chicago International Film Festival runs from October 13th through October 27th, with scheduled appearances by veteran actor Danny Glover and Empire star Taraji P. Henson. Glover stars in “93 Days,” a drama that chronicles the impressive effort to contain the  spread of Ebola across Nigeria’s most populated city.

Henson will be interviewed in advance of the release of “Hidden Figures,” the story of three African-American women who served at NASA on the mission to send astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Other films featured include: “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” by Chicago’s own Steve James and Kartemquin Films; “Two Trains Runnin’,” a documentary narrated by Chicago native Common that highlights important events in Blues history; “Raising Bertie,” which is a coming-of-age story about three young Black men living in Bertie County, North Carolina; “They Charge for the Sun,” a socially-poignant futuristic film about humans living underground in fear of the harmful rays of the sun; “I Am Not Your Negro,” a film detailing legendary Black author and civil rights activist James Baldwin’s accounts of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. This documentary breathes new life into Baldwin’s unfinished work; “Daughters of the Dust;” a panel discussion titled “Black Lives Matter and the Media” and a tribute to “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen.

For more information, the Festival box office is located at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.; the website is https://www.chicagofilmfestival.com/.

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