Nat Turner, a famous historical figure in Black culture, and an infamous historical figure in mainstream culture, was a slave in South Hampton county, Virginia, that led an 1831 slave rebellion - comprised of roughly 70 slaves and free Blacks - that resulted in the deaths of 60 white men, women, and children. Although the rebellion was suppressed by a white militia within a few days, Turner himself eluded capture for two additional months.
The aftermath of Turner's rebellion, was the execution of 50 plus rebels, as well as the massacre of more than 200 Blacks - the majority of which had nothing to do with the slave rebellion - by the white militia. Additionally, the state of Virginia, along with several other southern states, passed new laws to control both slaves and free Blacks; such as prohibiting education, the right to assemble, the right to bear arms, as well as the right to hold religious worship services unless there was a white minister present. As a result of the added restrictions(as if it weren't bad enough already) many free Blacks fled Virginia.
This over-the-top response by the white militia and the state, was a desperate effort to exert control over the Black population, quell any future uprisings, and reassure the white population in the area. Unfortunately for the state of Virginia and the white slave owners, Nat Turner's rebellion wasn't the first, and wouldn't be the last.
His legacy, as grisly as it was - both in the murders committed during his 1831 declaration of war against slavery, and the gruesome skinning, decapitation, and dismemberment performed on his corpse after his death(by hanging) - is forever etched into American history. He served as a wake up call to those whites who had grown accustomed to and accepting of the enslavement and oppression of Blacks, as well as a call to action for all those Blacks with a desire and readiness to fight for freedom and liberty.
So...how is it that such an notable figure in American history; enigmatic, charismatic, multi-faceted, controversial, has had so little treatment in American filmography?
Well, because as a rule, whites in America don't want to deal with or discuss slavery and its true legacies in any real way. Talk about the institution of slavery long enough, and drill down deep enough, and you get to the heart of the matter; that the spirit and legacies of that system still exist...discrimination in housing, criminal justice, constitutional rights, employment...and the elephant in the room; unequal distribution of wealth.
Focus a discussion on the American revolution; the rejection and overthrow of the authority of Great Britain by the thirteen American colonies(which came about through war and violence), and people speak of it proudly. Move the discussion towards the Civil War(talk about an oxymoron), and again people will discuss it proudly regardless of what side of the argument they're on.
What do the two latter discussions have in common? They both involve war, violence, and the killing of white folks(primarily). They both also boast countless treatments of the subject matter in film, television, and literature. So once again, I ask, why is it that Nat Turner's story has gone ignored by and large? Is it the slavery genre aspect? Is it that filmmakers don't see a value or significance in the subject matter? Or is he simply taboo; one of the untouchable subjects of American history?
Well...as of a few days ago, several of those questions can be at least temporarily set aside, as Nate Parker's passion project film "Birth Of A Nation", an apparently electrifying story of Nat Turner sold at the Sundance film festival - after an all-night bidding war - to Fox Searchlight for a record breaking $17.5 million dollars.
Nate Parker, a Black, American actor who wrote, directed, produced, and stars in the film, invested seven years developing the project. Apparently, the years of dedication paid off, as several reports from the festival made note of audiences crying, critical acclaim, and multiple standing ovations following the screening of the film. Nate Parker has appeared in several high profile films, including Beyond The lights, Red Tails, and The Great Debaters, and is seemingly positioning himself as one of the ones to watch in the coming years.
Our hope is that the original version, as shown at the film festival, is what makes it to the screen when it is released to the theaters. Leave it as the filmmakers intended, please. Hollywood producers and distributors are known for changing and "tweaking" films in attempts to make films fit a mainstream model. Translation: Dilute it, in order to make it more palatable to "mainstream" sensibilities.
One cannot help but wonder whether Birth Of A Nation will mark the beginning of a rediscovery of Nat Turner, and pave the way for additional works about him and other neglected and ignored Black historical figures, or if it will simply be a one-off. In the last decade, Hollywood has become notoriously predictable in their model of producing more of same. Sequels, prequels, and spinoffs are now the rule of thumb...if a project makes a profitable return on investment...so for now we just need to support the film, and then wait and watch for the result.
In an interview regarding his project, Nate Parker, has stated that he sees his film as a battle cry. He wants all those that see it to be provoked and challenged, adding that the powerful images and scenes in the film "once seen, cannot be unseen". He offered that there are themes and parallels that echo in today's society, and that everyone will have to ask themselves about what their role is in it. Passivity? Complicity? Whether we are doing all that we can be doing.
The title as well as the timing of the film is not lost on us, and clearly not on Nate Parker either. It bears the same name as D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, released February 8th of that same year, based on the novel, The Clansman, which immortalized black stereotypes and served as propaganda tool (credited to have inspired a reemergence of the KKK).
Fast forward, one century later, and it represents a film about Nat Turner, leader of the most successful(albeit violent) and legendary slave revolt in American history.
Needless to say, our interest is definitely piqued, even more so now, than early last year when we first caught wind of the project. Our hats are off to you, Mr. Parker, and we will be sure to post a film review of Birth Of A Nation, once it has been released.
We will post more information regarding the project as the release date nears.