Slaughtered schoolchildren, a butchered baby, and scores dead—these are the images dominating The Confessions of Nat Turner, a neutral, brief, and striking account of the Nat Turner Rebellion recorded by Turner’s lawyer, Thomas Gray. Unlike this text, Nate Parker’s biopic of Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation, is less than accurate. Though the movie is rated-R, Parker holds back on the violence, and instead, stresses a potentially apocryphal, romantic angle to set up a revenge narrative mirroring Braveheart. Some of the photography is striking—especially sweeping shots of the cotton fields, shots of tortured slaves, close-ups of Nate Parker—but the action, of which there is not enough, is presented via montage, which further dilutes it. Maybe this is too harsh; after all, the movie received an ovation before its screening at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury and Audience Awards. And, at our screening, which followed the rape controversy that destroyed the movie, there was also an ovation, though after the movie. Given the movie’s sanitized treatment of the rebellion, and since the thesis of the movie is that Nat Turner’s revolt was the first battle in a war against slavery—a war that arguably ended in 1865, though some will argue that some form of slavery persisted until 1964, or still persists—maybe the audience was not applauding for the movie, but against slavery. Or, maybe, the audience liked the movie. Full disclosure: we did not come in with an open mind—we expected to cry and be stirred. One of us was. The other almost fell asleep—birth should be more exciting.
By Alec Julian & Carrie White