Someone in this thread, I can't remember who and don't want to look it up, once said that my posts here remind them of college, but without the drinking. I don't really know how to feel about that, but I will say that such a statement is appropriate today because what I have to say about the new version of Birth of a Nation by Nate Parker actually ties into college.
I'm actually very conflicted as to how I feel about this film. On one hand, from a filmmaking standpoint, this film is superb, especially from a first time director. The acting is solid, the shot composition is great and very haunting at times, and while the film does keep indulging itself in arty symbolic shots it never becomes distracting from the depictions of the horrors of slave life. The first hour is fantastic in its depiction of the life of the slave preacher Nat Turner and his wife. Where it starts to lose me is that,as a history, it completely fails and disregards every rule that historians are supposed to follow.
I studied history in college for five years, and one of the things that my history professor lectured us on constantly and made sure that we understood is the fact that, contrary to what it might seem at first, history is not just the Gradgrindian recitation of facts and the events that happened. As historians, we are story tellers, and as such we are bound by the responsibility to give the narrative arcs, the motivations of the people involved, the reasons why events happened as they did, and most importanly the lessons and themes to be learned, all of which form a central historical thesis, and we are obligated to keep the narrative to this thesis to the best of our ability. With that in mind, we are also bound to the obligation to tell the events as they actually happened, an obligation which, as it turns out upon doing some further research, the film has also neglected to follow.
Even if I did not know the true story about the Nat Turner Slave Revolt, and all I knew was that this story was based on a true, historic event, I think I would still call it a bad history. Even, after watching this, I still, for lack of a better way to phrase it, don’t know what Nat Turner’s motivation was for deciding to revolt when he did. According to this movie, a number of atrocities happen to him, including the rape of his wife by a slave master, him being whipped at the post for talking back to a white man, and his ban from preaching for baptizing a white man. Even if all these things did happen to him, if this movie had a historical narrative thesis it most likely would have focused on any of these horrific events more as the reason for him breaking and deciding to revolt, but instead the last event that happens before Nat Turner decides to revolt is, and I might be wrong as to what happened here, the death of his grandmother in her sleep from old age. The movie apparently wants to focus more on the events than the history, as it includes events, such as his grandmother’s death, that are seemingly unrelated to the story of the Slave Revolt that he led, which in all honesty is treated like it is an afterthought.
I do suppose that this movie is not a literal history book, and I can think of several great movies that aren't completely historically accurate, but the fact is I don’t think that I would feel so strongly about this if it weren’t for the fact that this movie had a great opportunity to right a grand historical wrong. The popular understanding of the Nat Turner Revolt in the American consciousness was so tarnished and sullied for more than a century because of the 1915 DW Griffith version of Birth of a Nation, and this film had a golden opportunity to correct that wrong by reintroducing the American public to the actual events as they happened. While it is, upon further research, more loyal to the events than its predecessor, for all the terrific film making done by Nate Parker, this movie commits many of the same sins that it does. It focuses too much on the visual and entertainment areas than it does on the actual, historical fact and narrative.
While the abandonment of historical fact is troubling, I do not regret seeing this movie. The visuals are stunning, the acting superb, and because it inspired me to do more research on the actual events that happened. I can only hope that that last part is true for other people who see this film. Perhaps someday someone will be able to really give an interesting story that more accurately portrays and explains the actual events of the Nat Turner Slave Revolt, but for now this movie, despite its best intentions to right a wrong, is just as guilty.