The union between slave descendents and Christianity is one of the most enduring covenants in American history.
Very few of these indentured Africans likely embraced the Christian cross back in their homeland, but in short order this religion (Christianity originating in the Middle East and appropriated by Europeans) was impressed upon them along with whatever drudgery their masters deemed necessary for the subjugation of the New World.
Religion plays a central part in “Birth of a Nation,” the major motion picture that opens tomorrow. Deliberately lifting the title from the landmark 1915 silent classic by D.W. Griffith, actor/director/producer Nate Parker chooses to base his story on an actual incident from the antebellum south, circa 1831 Virginia.
Like Moses plucked from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, the slave child Nat (Tony Espinosa) is selected by the matriarch of the Turner household (Penelope Ann Miller) to receive instruction in the Good Book. Ushered into a library of books on a variety of subjects, the young scholar is admonished that most of these tomes, like the fruit from the tree of life, contain knowledge that will only bring misery to the children from the “dark continent” because of tje additional knowledge they gain. In contrast, the scriptures, will guide him into adulthood and his place in the world.
Maturity finds him serving as a charismatic (indentured) preacher toiling at the pleasure of a benevolent (for the times) master (Armie Hammer), who alas, has fallen on harsh times financially. At the urging of a precursor to contemporary “jackleg” (unscrupulous) preachers, Mark Boone Jr. (best known as “Bobby” from “Sons of Anarchy”), Nat is enlisted to use his oratory skills to tame unruly slaves in the area, nullify the slave owners fear of rebellion, and replenish the coffers of the Turner family fortune.
The systemic, casual abuse of his fellow slaves and his own, deeper reading of the Gospel, brings about an Epiphany within Nat about what had previously been a treatise on social control. This in turn delivers the climax, or denoument.
Nat Turner’s revolt was not the only episode of insurrection within the slave community. In Virginia, Gabriel Prosser (1800), and George Boxley (1815) orchestrated unsuccessful uprisings, as did Denmark Vesey in South Carolina circa 1822. (Boxley escaped to the Mid West, and reportedly eluded capture until his death during the Civil War).
Turner’s mutiny survives in the national psyche due to the efforts of attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray, who documented the insurgent’s narrative in his jail cell before he died by hanging on Nov. 5, 1831 (this document may be accessed at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/turner/turner.html, with a summary available at http://www.melanet.com/nat/nat.html).
Gray’s manuscript inspired a 1967 novelization of the account by William Styron (of “Sophia’s Choice” fame). A 1968 Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Confessions of Nat Turner” won critical acclaim while generating its own share of controversy at the time for its sympathetic depiction of slaveholders, and its categorization of Nat Turner and his compatriots as hedonistic simpletons.
These earlier literary renditions render Turner as a martyr driven by divine inspiration in the form of visions, as might be seen by a schizophrenic. In Parker’s version, Turner is a more lucid, cerebral translator of the Holy Word, mandated to establish God’s dominion on earth via the emancipation of his people from bondage, much like the Hebrews under the yoke of Pharaoh.
Publicity for Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” began even before its premier at the Sundance Film Festival in January. There audiences gave Parker a standing ovation prior to its initial screening. This, in turn, led to a bidding war, with Fox Searchlight coming out on top with an estimated $17 million offer. Additionally Oscar buzz heralded the emergence of a major new talent. In the interim, the “buzz has been rocked by revelations of a rape allegation (and acquittal) against Parker and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, while both were student athletes at Penn State. (Parker eventually graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2002). His accuser committed suicide in 2012.
In the run up to its release, the logical (because of the similar themes of the protests) tie in to the Black Lives Matter movement and the national dialogue over police abuse/excessive force has exacerbated the media hype, in part because Fox Searchlight released a provocative promotional poster featuring a bust shot of Parker, with an American flag serving as a hangman’s noose around his neck. Conversely, local graffiti artists have altered some of these posters via Photoshop, with the caption “Rapist?” across the bottom.
This notoriety will undoubtedly impact this week’s opening (positively or negatively), with the film’s box office success likely a given. Parker’s Oscar prospects and future career are possibly an iffier proposition.
As an interesting aside, Parker’s production was financed via alternative means, as Hollywood outsiders like NLF linebacker Derrick Brooks, along with NBA forward Michael Finley and guard Tony Parker pitched in to help realize Parker’s dream.
“Birth of a Nation” is rated “R” (for its disturbing content and brief nudity); it has a run time of 129 minutes, and opens citywide tomorrow, including at the Baldwin Hills’ Rave Cinemas.