The Historical Fiction of The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker's film uses cinematic tropes that may obscure the true complexity of Nat Turner’s legend.

Fox Searchlight

Why is Nat Turner’s story necessary?

It’s a question that’s often subtly animated an ongoing debate about Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation, which tells a version of Turner’s infamous 1831 slave revolt in Virginia. While it shouldn’t enter conversations about Parker’s acquittal of sexual assault charges and his subsequent comments about the case, the question of Turner’s importance has lingered after The Birth of a Nation’s struggles at the box office. Some of the film’s most ardent advocates have charged that its problems result from plots among black feminists to harpoon the work of a duly acquitted man. More reasonably, some reviewers and supporters have called the film necessary viewing in spite of its creator. But those who defend The Birth of a Nation share a common concern: Does the movie’s underperformance somehow damage the underlying story of Turner and his rebellion?

Most of the movie’s defenders believe that Turner’s story carries a unique, overriding weight in black culture, whether for its historical significance or as a sort of animating founding legend of black resistance, and that Parker’s film does a prima facie service in telling such a vital account. Whether The Birth of a Nation actually carries that burden, and whether it can be appreciated in spite of the besmirchment of its creator, depends on understanding the phenomenon of Nat Turner himself and what he has come to symbolize. The main problem with figuring out that phenomenon is that so much of the Turner we know is historical fiction, an impenetrable legendarium of many things that cannot be verified.

Even before Turner was hanged, the story of his rebellion had spread far and wide as propaganda, both among slavers and the enslaved. For some, Turner and a roving band of rapist ruffians attacked white women in the most bestial of ways. For others, General Nat led a glorious armed revolution that still maintained hidden legions in the Virginia woods years after his capture. These disparate visions were aided by the fact that as an enslaved person, Turner saw his history, visage, and biographical details intentionally erased, even as they were formed.

Much of modern knowledge about Turner descends from these legends and a few shaky sources. The primary source with the most information about Turner himself is a firsthand account from the lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray, called The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. The problem with that document, which was based on purported conversations between Turner and Gray, is that those conversations may or may not have actually happened and are not mentioned in the court of record, despite Gray’s claims.

The novel based on that document, William Styron’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, is completely a work of historical fiction. Taking its skeleton from an already questionable source with limited scope, Styron wove a fascinating, impossibly omniscient yarn about Turner’s life and inner motivations that was promptly criticized by many black writers and intellectuals for missing too many historical marks and reinforcing negative stereotypes. Nevertheless, that novel and its source material probably form the bulk of modern popular knowledge about Nat Turner and his 1831 revolt in Virginia.

There’s nothing wrong or uncommon about the transformation of historical tidbits into legend; the legend of America’s birth is what tills fertile ground for works of art like Hamilton. But historical fictions often carry political messages beyond the basic facts of the historical record. The legend of Turner’s rebellion in many black households carries an inspirational message of agency, expressed through violence, and genius that belies the popular slavery myths of dumb, contented enslaved people who were brought civilization by white people.

The magic of oppression is that it often manages to convince oppressed people that they are at fault for their plight, for being weak and conquerable. Turner’s story is often a salve for the shame that accompanies marginalization. It’s an aspirational symbol of the potential power of a black community that can unite, and overcome internal divisions created by racism. In today’s racial climate, frustrations among black activists mount in tandem with a system that demands non-violence not as a Kingian tool for change, but as a tool for complacency and silence. As the failures of reforms like school desegregation and fair housing laws become more apparent, Turner’s message is especially seductive and relevant.

The Birth of a Nation hews most closely to this vision of Turner’s legend as a reversal of oppression, even perhaps contorting the story more to suit that narrative. Parker and his co-writer Jean Celestin—a codefendant in the rape trial at the center of meta-criticism about the film—create a story in which Turner’s violent rebellion is an inspirational act of honor and dignity. The film’s protagonist is grim, sardonic, and impossibly virtuous in the mold of most American epic heroes. His religious language as a preacher is molded to fit his linear transition from docile to revolutionary, shifting from Gospel advice to slaves to fiery liberation theology only late in the film. His major motivation as a rather privileged and extraordinary man on the plantation seems to be defending the “honor” of black women—including his wife—who are sexually assaulted in pivotal moments of the movie.

These women and their pain are largely unexplored in the film except as set-up for Parker’s Turner’s chivalrous turn to violence. It’s a well-worn trope, and once the defense of their honor has finally driven Turner to the point of violence, his conviction radiates. Those who will not collaborate are portrayed as craven betrayers. The deaths of white women and children—which certainly happened—occur mostly off-screen, a decision that makes Turner’s violence-as-chivalry quite a bit easier to digest. In the end of the movie, despite an unsuccessful raid of the armory of Jerusalem, Virginia, and the violent deaths of all collaborators, there seems to be no doubt that Turner’s rebellion was a net social good, as the film compresses time a bit to show that his doomed last assault directly inspired young black boys to take up arms for the Union in the Civil War. Or something.

The quality of The Birth of a Nation is almost auxiliary to this conversation, but for what it’s worth Parker does deliver a gorgeous film that makes no major missteps and capably carries the water of the story it intends to tell. The bigger concern is whether the film’s version of the Turner legend actually connects in this moment of decentralized black activism and a black media renaissance—both of which are anchored by black women and LGBT people. Parker’s Turner legend is a conventional American hero’s tale with clearly drawn factional lines relying on tried-and-true motivations and refusing to grapple with the morality of the righteous violence levied against oppression. His writing choices—such as the addition of sexual assault to the stories of the women in Turner’s life—bend the historical record to create a moral play easily understood by gunslinger-lovers and Gladiator fanboys alike.

There’s another way to read the legend of Turner’s Rebellion, though, and that reading is what makes it difficult to offer high praise of The Birth of a Nation’s intentions. Thomas Gray’s account paints Turner as more of a religious zealot who from an early age took the role of a “prophet” and built a loyal, dedicated following among enslaved people in Southampton County, Virginia. Using an apocalyptic fire-and-brimstone message, this version of Turner exhorted his fanatics to exact bloody vengeance for the wrongs of slavery and America, a campaign that massacred white women and children with little prejudice.

In this telling, while the doomed rebellion may have galvanized the abolition movement, it also caused so much consternation among white slave-owning classes that the entire system of slavery was changed into a much more brutally sustained act of suppression and disempowerment. The idea of whiteness was bolstered even further as fear about black uprisings shaped racial identity. Enslaved people across the country were lynched, maimed, castrated, and beaten preemptively in terror, and the myths of roving black male rapists on the hunt for white women took hold as the founding pillar of the modern carceral state.

Read this way, Nat Turner’s rebellion could be another inspirational tale of black masculinity, but also could be seen as a theological breakthrough, a tragedy, or as proof of the overwhelming power of white backlash. Regardless, the lesson here is complicated. Historically, this telling lays the foundation for the criminalization of blackness and the sexual lenses through which black men see and are seen. These concepts are germane to both the current black political and media moment, as well as in figuring out just what to think about Parker.

That Parker chooses the path of least resistance in telling the story of Turner as a western hero archetype is not surprising. But his doing so limits our ability to use the movie either as history or as a tool for understanding the effects of oppression—effects that still exist and directly link black culture in 2016 with Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. The film’s limitations, however, are fatal neither to the story of Turner nor to the spirit of rebellion that the story often engenders. The failure of The Birth of a Nation to live up to the incredible expectations many had for it should prompt exploration of the stories of thousands of other rebellions, a critical analysis of how black liberation is gendered, and an understanding of how violence is privileged as a more radical and masculine form of protest.

Where are the stories of enslaved women? What movies and books have been written about black mammies who struck fear in the heart of generations of white women whose children they reared? What of black domestic workers who infiltrated the innermost sanctums of whiteness and sabotaged as they could, all the while maintaining their own secret code languages as sophisticated as anything the CIA would use today? What about black field hands who harpooned profits with silent protests and strikes at the potential cost of their own lives?

Nat Turner’s story is still necessary, from both a cultural and historical perspective, but the limitations of The Birth of a Nation show that perhaps the world is ready for a new version of the legend, and indeed for a new way of telling the stories about the lives of enslaved men and women. While that reckoning should be subordinate to a debate over whether to support the film, given the allegations against its creators and their proximity to rape culture, perhaps the conversations aren’t all that disconnected.