The Birth of a Nation is the kind of movie that I can honestly say I wish I would never have to see again. This film reminds us all of the worst time in American History, the time of slavery, before the Civil War when a great deal of this country still did not know how horrible and disgusting the slavery of other human beings is. This country had to learn that lesson the hard way, by going through a 4 year Civil War that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Slavery goes hand in hand with “Mans Inhumanity to Man”, and slavery has always been about the concept of one human being dominating and controlling the life of another human being so that in some way they can feel superior to that person. This one basic trait that is present in too many human beings represents some of the worst parts of all humanity. You don’t have to be black or Jewish or any one of the millions of still abused people in the world to appreciate the enormity of this problem and the damage it has done over so many centuries to so many innocent people.
In all the hundreds of years before the invention of machines that could plow fields, pick cotton and other plants, the only way farming crops could be accomplished was by using low-cost or in some cases no-cost labor. Once this idea became accepted and commonplace, the next step was slavery, which was present in this country as far back as 1619 and finally ended some 245 years later with the end of the Civil War. I assume that the title “The Birth of a Nation” has to do with the fact that the writer and director of this movie Nate Parker thought that this country did not really begin to exist until slavery in this country was finally recognized to be an atrocity and this is an idea that I am in full agreement with. Why something this obvious took 245 years is without a doubt the number one embarrassment in the history of the Unites States. Clearly, farmers in the deep south where slavery was the most prevalent thought that they could not survive financially without the cheap and free labor of slaves. But what made slavery in this country even more of the abomination that it already was, is the cruelty of how badly the slaves were treated including in many cases even being treated like they were animals and to the level that there were not even laws to protect them from being tortured and even murdered.
This movie is about the biggest slavery uprising in American History, which was started by a slave named Nat Turner. Nat was one of the very few slaves who learned how to read and because of this ability and his reading of the bible he became a preacher and even preached to other slaves on other local farms to help control them. At one point in this film, Nat’s preaching was even used to provide income to the owner of the farm where Nat was enslaved. This eventually leads to problems and then to violence and the slave revolt which resulted in the deaths of some 60 slave owners and their families and then over 200 slaves in retaliation. Some of the visual scenes of abuse and inhumanity during this 2-hour film were very hard to watch but one scene that disturbed me the most was one where a young white girl was walking a black girl around the house with a leash like she was a dog. This scene was witnessed by Nat Turner and from the look on his face and all the atrocities he had previously witnessed at that point in the film it is very understandable that this would lead to uncontrollable rage that could only be resolved through a slave revolt and violence. This is how human beings work. We are able to tolerate abuse and outrage and injustice up to a point, but there is always an unknown upper limit and once that is reached all hell will break lose. In the end, we are all human beings and we all deserve to be treated with respect and humanity.
The cast of this movie is very impressive including Armie Hammer as the slaveowner, Penelope Ann Miller as his mother, Jackie Earl Haley as one of the horrible lowlife who is responsible for so many incidents of the abuse of slaves. The actress Gabrielle Union also has a rather small part in this movie as well.
There is a good deal of controversy over this film, one reason for this is the subject matter of this story, but the other reason is that the creator of this movie Nate Parker and his college roommate were accused of raping a woman in 1999 while he was a college student at Penn State. This was part of last weeks 60 Minutes report about the movie and this accusation and Parker was eventually found not guilty of this crime. One can only imagine what it must have been like for a young man in college on trial for a rape he did not commit and at one point during the interview Parker lost his composure remembering when he was found not guilty. Some years later his accuser committed suicide, which is another shocking part of this story. Nate Parker has been an actor for well over a decade and one can only wonder why this rape accusation would come up now with the release of this film, some 17 years after the incident occurred. I have a great deal of respect for Parker’s determination to get this controversial film made after some 8 years of what had to be an extremely difficult period of trial and error and especially considering the fact that Parker is not a big name in Hollywood with a great deal of clout.
Despite the extremely difficult scenes and depiction of cruelty and extreme violence in this film, I do recommend it for its quality and for its reminding all of us of an important but widely unknown incident in American History.