Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movies In History: The Birth of a Nation

No, not the horrible D. W. Griffith one from 1915, but the one that came out in 2016.  Indeed, its sort of the antithesis to that earlier film.

This film toured nationally, of course, and I thought about seeing it while it was here but didn't end up doing so.  It didn't seem to get a lot of press and I wasn't sure what exactly it was about.  I happened to catch it recently on television.

This is a cinematic treatment of the story of Nat Turner's slave rebellion.  I'll confess that I'm not terribly familiar with that event, which is often inaccurately cited to be the most successful example of a slave rebellion in North America (there was actually at least one more successful in every sense during the Colonial Era).  As I'm not hugely familiar with the Turner story, I'm left a bit out to sea in regards to the accuracy of this depiction, but it seems to have done a good job of it from what I can learn.

Turner, as the movie depicts, was a highly religious slave in Virginia.  He had a natural speaking ability and started to operate as a Christian minister within his slave community.  He was sufficiently good at this that he began to be used in that capacity in the area and preached to other slave communities with the license and encouragement of the slave owning class. At some point the exposure to the fate of his fellow slaves began to weigh on him heavily and he began, by his own accounts, to have visions that urged him, he claimed, to lead his fellows in rebellion against their master.  Over time, he organized such a rebellion.

The rebellion was noteworthy in a variety of ways, and not only for its success.  Convinced of the evil nature of the slave owning class, the brief uprising did not spare women and children and taking place mostly over a single night it concentrated, by design, on the use of blunt and edged weapons that would kill but not make much noise.  It was, therefore, sort of uniquely grisly.

It was, of course, also a failure and rapidly put down.  The  number of rebel slaves and whites from the slave owning class who were killed in the uprising, keeping in mind post uprising executions, were freakishly similar,both being about 55-56 in number.  Reprisal murders by local whites however took an additional 120 black lives.  As is often noted, long term the rebellion became and enduring memory in the South and it may have caused the oppressive nature of slavery, already pretty horrific, to become worse, although the extent to which that can really be determined seems questionable to me.  Other factors may have played a role in that other than the rebellion, but no doubt it was an ongoing white memory that formed part of the basis for the slave owning class' view of the world.

All in all, this film seems to do a very good job. It appears correct in material details.  The very strong religious character of Nat Turner himself is correctly portrayed.  The rebellion scenes appear to exaggerate somewhat, but then they'd likely have to in order to make an effective movie portrayal.  All in all, it's well worth seening.

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