Thomas Ruffin Gray’s much-contested The Confessions of Nat Turner (not to be confused with William Styron’s 1967 novel of the same name) is dense with dueling agendas. Compiled by the Virginia attorney in the aftermath of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising, the pamphlet promises a “faithful record,” but as with much in the pitiless archive of the “peculiar institution,” it’s far more fraught than that. Its account of the insurrection—in which Turner, an enslaved preacher, led a cadre of his fellow bondsmen on a path of armed resistance through Southampton County, Virginia, killing 55—bears the marks of both men, one an apologist for slavery and the other its fierce opponent.
For all the questions that still swirl around the document’s truth content, however, its contemporaneous description of Turner’s life and times, strung with streams of blood and serpents loosed, reflects the barbed nature of narrating the past. “On the sign appearing in the heavens, the seal was removed from my lips,” as Turner claims, at least in Gray’s reckoning. “And I communicated the great work laid out for me to do.”
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a portrait of the prophet on the road to Jerusalem, is indebted to The Confessions of Nat Turner for both its understanding of Turner’s “work” and its rendering of his faith. From the sounds of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to the avenging angels and immanent eclipses of what Julia Ward Howe once described as God’s “terrible swift sword,” the film traces its protagonist’s progress from scriptural reverence to earthly revolution—a confession on the Augustinian model, suffused with the spirit of the convert. Run through with thoughtful allusions to African rituals and Christian texts, the film gathers strength from religion, only to squander it on shallow connections to the Civil War and the politics of the present, reducing Turner’s prophecies to their most mechanistic meanings.
As radical as the film’s re-appropriation of D.W. Griffith’s racist epic of the same name and resuscitation of Turner’s rebellion may be, the trouble with The Birth of a Nation is that it isn’t radical enough: Parker strains to control the strange and stirring complications of his subject’s visionary apocalypticism, and so casts the insurrectionist more in the hero’s bronze than the martyr’s blood. The film is a potent, even necessary, corrective, but from the flowering of resistance it ultimately plucks nearly all the thorns.
Carrying childhood memories of both the slave-owning regime’s brute force and its meager interstices, Turner (Parker), witness to his father’s confrontation with a malevolent slave catcher, Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), and taught to read by the plantation mistress, Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Scott), emerges, at first, as a multifaceted figure. He has the ear of his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), but tends the embers of his hatred with sidelong glances and a furtive brow; he mutters “good Lord” at the first sight of Cherry (Aja Naomi King), his future wife, but approaches his role as the shepherd of his people with sober determination.
Though the film’s fleeting glimpses of slave auctions and household chores, often shot in wan, sallow light, lend his depiction of plantation life little texture, Parker succeeds in illustrating the convergence of Turner’s religious and political convictions. In The Birth of a Nation, the era’s common referents, such as cotton bolls and columned homes, are but stations of the cross; it’s the blood-soaked corn, or the ecstatic sermon, that suggest the rebel’s genesis. As Samuel contracts Turner out to neighboring planters, for instance, collecting his chattel’s wages in an upturned white palm, the preacher encounters more than enough evil to discover his voice. After seeing a chained man’s teeth chiseled from his mouth during one unimaginable punishment, he implores his congregants to “sing to Him a new song”: an insurrectionist’s message, secreted away in God’s word.
In this context, Parker’s decision to shoehorn Turner into a routine revenge narrative, and subsequently from man into “icon,” is a failure of imagination, or perhaps error of judgment, that plagues The Birth of a Nation to its final frames. The catalyst by which Turner’s rage becomes rebellion is rape, and one need not consider Parker’s 1999 arrest and subsequent acquittal on sexual assault charges to read the film’s treatment of the subject as an affront to the victims’ plight. Sexual violence against enslaved women was, in fact, a grim commonplace of the institution’s arrangements of power, but in Parker’s hands the import of such crimes resides in the reactions of men: As Cherry lies battered in the mistress’s summer townhome, or Esther (Gabrielle Union) emerges from her rape at the hands of one of Samuel’s friends, the camera clings to the faces of their husbands. The director appears to misunderstand that the answers to our questions aren’t there.
Indeed, the notion that the rarest form of resistance in the annals of American slavery, the full-scale revolt, might not submit so easily to the constraints of cinematic narrative seems not to occur to Parker. His noble endeavor, which is to transform The Confessions of Nat Turner into a patriotic parable, crashes on the shoals of his subject’s complexities, on the unthinkable courage required to challenge head-on the signal atrocity committed in the West between the end of the Middle Ages and the Holocaust. It was, of course, Turner’s rough-edged, Biblical sense that he was an instrument of God’s will that pressed him to assume the prophet’s mantle, though by the time The Birth of a Nation arrives at the red, white, and blue bunting of his execution, the revelation at the heart of his attempted revolution seems once again lost in history’s mists.
The climactic violence of Turner’s rebellion, with its reprisals and ambushes and maudlin strings, thus strips its animating force of his penetrating insight into the system’s central contradiction, its Achilles’ heel, which was the fact that its moral justification, Christianity, also contained the seeds of its demise. In the end, The Birth of a Nation sands down Turner’s understanding of justice until it fits into our own, modern hermeneutic, and so neglects the lasting consequence of the change he wrought. Even the film’s most awful, forthright act of invention, a montage of the uprising’s aftermath that culminates in black bodies hanging from weeping willows, appears to admit the difficulty, the impossibility, of capturing the country’s original sin. The song that sets the sequence in motion is Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” with its mournful mention of “blood on the leaves, blood at the root,” but The Birth of a Nation is closer kin to Eve’s apple, a story we already know.