What People are Saying about Birth of a Nation
When the first trailer premiered in late April, it was clear The Birth of a Nation would be a controversial movie. Named after the horrifically racist 1915 silent film (which was largely used as a recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan), this new adaption was born from a history of social and racial tension. The Birth of a Nation begins by introducing viewers to Nat Turner, an African American who grew up as a slave in Southampton County Virginia. A group of slave owners approach Turner, who was educated as a pastor, believing he can help quell a potential slave uprising that's been brewing on their lands. Instead, Turner encourages his listeners to fight, leading to a bloody conflict and grim consequences for both sides.
The new Birth of a Nation deals with a number of painful themes: slavery, violence, the errant ways of humanity. Yet it's the spiritual themes and biblical interpretations which have many Christians concerned. Here are a what a few critical sources are saying about the film:
“You could argue that given its generous use of Scripture and its explicitly religious underpinnings, Birth of a Nation is one of the best-crafted Christian movies in recent history. Not since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has a ‘faith based’ story—and there's no question that this is, by definition, a faith-based story—had such narrative pop. The Birth of a Nation is a powerful, convicting tale.
But it's steeped in horrific displays of violence. And it wallows in human suffering and uses theology to, essentially, justify wholesale butchery.”
“The picture’s treatment of the Christian gospel is its most interesting element, as it is used as a weapon for oppression before it is used as a means of moral liberation. It is introduced not as a means of spiritual salvation but as a way to keep slaves ‘in line’ with the promise of heavenly reward for doing their masters’ bidding. Since Parker sees Nat Turner as a divinely inspired religious martyr, there is an almost invisible switch where the gospel goes from being a sword to being a shield, or at least a sword for other means.”
“Parker, who also directs and co-wrote the script, has chosen a provocative, incendiary story of oppressed minorities rising up against their oppressors—a theme that, in a time of cellphone videos and other evidence of ongoing injustice toward African Americans, carries even more potency than it would have without that modern-day connection. The scriptural justification for Parker's actions is certainly arguable, but even those who come down on the other side will be challenged not to sympathize to some extent with the plight of slaves.”
“Turner’s own shift from Christlike grace to Jehovah-style wrath is not without its heavy-handed moments: One crucial scene, in particular, would play infinitely better without the obtrusive positioning of a stained-glass window, and the cutaways to Turner’s ancestral visions begin to verge on kitsch. But at its core, this is as intelligent and probing an inquiry into the uses and abuses of organized religion as we’ve seen in recent American movies, and also the rare slavery drama in which it’s the ideas, far more than the whipping and lynching scenes, that provide the deepest impact. Historians will have a field day debating the accuracy of the man’s dramatic trajectory (as they have since even before the publication of William Styron’s much-disputed 1967 novel, ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’), and the urge to contradict a black filmmaker’s interpretation of history will of course be a hard one for many commentators to resist.”
The Birth of a Nation currently holds a 77% fresh ranking on the critical site, with most audiences giving the film positive reviews. However, several critics have lambasted the film for its excessive use of violence, and quoting Scripture to justify atrocities on both sides of the fighting. Many have noted the issue of slavery adds a layer of complexity to the film’s actions, creating moral gray areas where there are no easy answers.
For more on The Birth of a Nation, including cautions and ratings, visit the Crosswalk movies channel and read our full review by Christian Hamaker. Also, be sure to check out the latest article on the life of Nat Turner on Christian headlines.