Catholic News Service
Nat Turner’s Rebellion, an 1831 insurrection among the enslaved people of Southampton County, Va., represented the most serious challenge of its kind ever posed to slavery in the antebellum South.
Although brief, the uprising exacted scores of white fatalities while its savage suppression involved the legally sanctioned executions of a roughly equal number of African-Americans, as well as the deaths of many more at the hands of enraged mobs.
Turner’s life is movingly dramatized in “The Birth of a Nation.”
Making ironic use of the title of D.W. Griffith’s technically innovative but otherwise deplorable 1915 film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, writer-director Nate Parker, who also stars as Turner, presents audiences with an engrossing profile.
Taught to read at an early age, Turner becomes a committed and eloquent preacher. But his gifts are turned to perverse use when his master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), agrees, for a fee, to let him tour nearby plantations delivering sermons in favor of submission.
Times are hard and local planters, feeling the pinch, have taken measures like reducing rations. The result has been the restlessness and resentment Turner’s exhortations are meant to quell.
Yet the arrangement turns out to have wholly unexpected consequences. As he witnesses the range of inhumanities to which his fellow slaves are routinely subjected, Turner gradually becomes radicalized. And these barbaric acts are soon matched by brutalities that strike closer to home, affecting both Turner himself and his beloved wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King).
Overwhelmed by this succession of atrocious events, Turner begins to view the message of Scripture in an entirely new light.
Christian faith is obviously central to Parker’s film, his directorial debut. So too are the moral issues raised by the short-lived but bloody revolt he chronicles.
An individual tyrant, for instance, has traditionally been viewed, at least in Catholic theology, as an opponent of the common good against whom violent measures may legitimately be taken. But does the same apply to an entire class of oppressors, including women and children?
Parker handles all this with sensitivity and subtlety while nonetheless presenting Turner in an unequivocally positive light.
The educational value of “The Birth of a Nation” would normally suggest expanding its audience to include at least some teens. Yet the amount of cruel mayhem inherent in this story is so extensive that even many mature viewers will find it difficult to endure.
The film contains strong gory violence, including torture and an off-screen rape, a scene of marital intimacy, upper female nudity, a few uses of profanity and a handful of crude and crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III, adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.