The Birth of a Nation – Ideology meets Action
The Birth of a Nation is not a statement. It’s a question, a very personal question.
How will you respond to injustice?
We live in a torn world. Flashes of evil–murder, terrorism, systemic oppression, and war–populate our TV screens and our lives. This story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) revisits the golden age of the slave-wrenching South. The Birth of a Nation does not merely tell an untold story about the horrors of slavery. It offers a glimpse of the question we must ask ourselves. Nat deliberates how he should respond to the evil that he sees. How does ideology meet action?
Nat’s grandmother (Esther Scott) tells the story of her husband’s death back in Africa. With regality she declares her pride in how he gave up his ghost. Then her eyes descend to envious sorrow as she admits, “I’m so happy he [died] that day. He didn’t have to see the things I’ve seen… a strong man broken down.” Nat journeys as an itinerant preacher, he travels from plantation to plantation—a front row seat to abhorrent atrocities. Nat does see the evil. But, those sights are just the beginning.
Unlike Braveheart’s William Wallace, the crux of Nat Turner’s narrative is the decision to fight. How should he respond to oppression? A quote attributed to the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reads, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Nat’s convictions slowly churn for the first 45 minutes of the film. Everything has its consequences. He considers his child and his wife (Aja Naomi King), his Bible, his responsibility and the future of his fellow slaves. In the film each person has his/her own choice to make based on specific circumstances. The Turner family, Nat’s owners, take notice of the wickedness, but they are quickly blinded again and again by their aristocratic web. Some of the slaves pray for a savior and choose steadfast endurance. Their response is not passivity; like Nat’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis), these slaves support the stability to the community. Nat chooses another path. The plot climaxes at Nat treading his own Via Delarosa. His final choice is to save the slaves who are reaping the rebellion’s consequences by offering his life.
The Birth of a Nation is a lament. It is a place to weep with those who wept in our history, and also to mourn the oppressions that populate our contemporary world. The Birth of a Nation does not give an answer to how we, individually, should respond. The story does provoke a new generation to move towards peace.
How will I choose to move towards peace today?