Editor’s Note: Nate Parker has been of two minds about the historical grounding of his film, The Birth Of A Nation, which tells a story based on the Nat Turner slave revolt of 1831. As recently as last Sunday, Parker reminded Anderson Cooper in a 60 Minutes interview that the movie is, in effect, a reality-based fiction. “There’s never been a film that was 100% historically accurate,” Parker said. “That’s why they say ‘based on a true story’ and doesn’t say, ‘A true story.’”
But in a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, Parker insisted that his movie was heavily grounded in fact. “For me, historical accuracy was very important,” he said, adding that he hoped The Birth Of A Nation would lead viewers to look more deeply into the real story. “You will learn more,” he said.
In that spirit, Deadline asked Patrick H. Breen, an associate professor of history at Providence College, to view The Birth Of A Nation with his historian’s eye. Breen is the author of The Land Shall Be Deluged In Blood: A New History Of The Nat Turner Revolt, which was published by the Oxford University Press in 2015.
Breen’s mission was not simply to fact-check or “truth squad” the movie, but rather to help to sort through its use of history in the service of cinema and current social debate. After viewing The Birth Of A Nation in Boston, Breen wrote what follows.
Introducing Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison vouched for the reliability of Douglass’s account of his life in slavery: “I am confident that it is essentially true in all its statements; that nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination; that it comes short of the reality, rather than overstates a single fact in regard to SLAVERY AS IT IS.” To Garrison and Douglass, the most powerful indictment of slavery that could be composed required a clear-eyed and honest portrayal of the institution.
In The Birth Of A Nation, Nate Parker takes a different tack. His rage jumps off the screen as Parker condemns the slaveholders who in 1831 enslaved nearly half the population of Southampton County, Virginia. While Southampton provides a setting for the movie, in Birth Of A Nation Turner’s crusade is really about much more than the corruptions of a system of slavery in a small corner of Virginia nearly two hundred years ago. The real subject of the movie is all the terrible injustices that black people have faced in America over the last four hundred years.
Birth Of A Nation clearly draws from all of American history. At the end of the movie, when Cherry Turner told Nat that the slaveholders were killing people for nothing more than being black, I heard an audible gasp from the audience because they recognized immediately that her words could have been a tweet #BlackLivesMatter. Birth Of A Nation evokes both the African heritage that the slave trade did so much to erase and the horrors of the internal slave trade. The movie dwells especially on the sadism that slavery made possible and that continued through Reconstruction and the era of Jim Crow. It reminds viewers that long before whites such as D. W. Griffith invented and promulgated the myth of black men who raped white women, white men raped black women without fear of any consequences.
Nina Simone’s barebones rendition of Strange Fruit is not the only allusion to the lynching that was so frighteningly common a century ago. The shot of Cherry Turner’s swollen face after she has been raped resembles the 1955 pictures from Jet magazine of Emmett Till’s disfigured corpse lying in an open casket after the 14-year-old was tortured and killed for whistling at a white woman. The challenges that Nat Turner faced as he learned to read parallel the challenges facing poor black students squeezed into America’s resegregating schools get. The ability of Turner’s owner to monetize Turner’s preaching reminds one how so many whites have made ever increasing sums off exploited blacks. In perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie, when Nat Turner was hit simply for returning to a white child a doll she dropped, one can see all the small acts of human kindness that have so often been repaid with a coldhearted brutality.
Parker’s indictment of America’s racist past is powerful in part because it draws upon so much of American history, but its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Parker made Birth of a Nation the story of America, but in so doing the movie fails to portray what happened in Southampton in 1831.
Parts of Nat Turner’s story that do not fit Parker’s story—such as the way that the rebels intentionally targeted women and children, Turner’s inability to kill anyone by his own hand other than Margaret Whitehead, the impotence of a slave rebel army that did not actually make it ten miles to Jerusalem, and Turner’s ultimate surrender when he was discovered “in a little hole” not far from where the revolt began—are left out of the film entirely.
Other parts of Parker’s indictment against America describe other places but not Nat Turner’s Virginia. For example, the indiscriminate lynching that Parker notes led to hundreds of deaths in Southampton actually did not happen. In Southampton, slaves were the most valuable form of property and tax records reveal that whites killed roughly three dozen slaves as the revolt was put down. Some of these murdered blacks were surely innocent, but the rebels force numbered about sixty at its peak, which suggests that the vast majority of those killed after the revolt were in fact rebels or their allies. There was, not surprisingly, a great deal of anger at blacks after the revolt. One white correspondent noted that another revolt would lead to “the total extermination of their race in the southern country,” but Southampton’s slaveholders—recognizing the danger that enraged whites posed to their wealth—did everything that they could to stop the indiscriminate killings.
Even the most controversial decision of the director—given Parker’s own history of trial for and acquittal of rape and sexual assault—to use rape as the trigger for the revolt does not fit the evidence. According to the movie, Samuel Turner, the man who is presented as Turner’s master and his first victim, well deserved Turner’s hatchet in his chest because he pimped Turner’s best friend’s wife to another man. This marked the ultimate debasement of the slaveholder who first appeared in Birth Of A Nation as a friend and a defender of the slave leader.
In the movie, Samuel Turner’s personal trajectory, as he becomes a cruel drunk, recalls that of another famous figure, Sophia Auld, who in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative personified the ways that slavery corrupted everything, even this kind hearted and well intentions slaveholder’s wife. But at this point, the essential difference between Douglass’s and Parker’s approach becomes most clear. Auld may stand in for a larger theme, but one trusts that she did become the mean drunk that Douglass described.
One cannot have the same faith in Parker’s story. It is not simply that Parker did not properly identify the man Turner called his master, whose name was in fact Joseph Travis. Rather, by making Turner’s master a person who had become thoroughly evil, Parker justifies Nat Turner’s initial attack as a deserved personal retribution. In his confession given after he was captured (and largely supported by current scholarship, despite challenges to its full validity), Turner described it differently. In discussing the initial raid on the Travis farm, Nat Turner recalled Travis was a “kind master… in fact,” Turner added, “I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me.” For Turner, as for Frederick Douglass, slavery as it was provided ample justification for his revolt. A slave need not have experienced the most heinous crimes to reject this system. Birth Of A Nation would have been a different film if Nate Parker had shared their confidence.