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Film Review

The Birth of a Nation

America's original sin was slavery. Having made fortunes for a few, it proved a cancer whose effects we still feel today. Until recently it was believed that slave rebellions in the American colonies, and later, the United States, were very rare. Some scholars had wondered why rebellions seemed more common in Central America and the Caribbean. In America, Nate Turner's rebellion in 1831 in Virginia is probably the best known, but historians have now documented several hundred more, ranging from barn burning and the killing of livestock to full-scale armed insurrection. The more significant include the Stono Rebellion (1739, South Carolina); the New York City Conspiracy (1741); Denmark Vesey (1822, South Carolina); the slave ship Armistad (1839); and John Brown's Raid (1859, Harper's Ferry). Although John Brown was not a slave himself, some of his men were. His raid, while short-lived, was especially significant because it signaled the spread of anti-slavery feelings beyond New England and ultimately galvanized the abolitionist movement. From the gallows, John Brown's prophesy that "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood" was fulfilled. Blood it was, as more than 700,000 men ultimately died in the Civil War that freed the slaves. Yet in some ways, the war still continues.

A pivotal work in the depiction of blacks in America is D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), a silent film about two white families, in which white men in blackface were shown lusting after white women and setting up corrupt Reconstruction governments that oppressed Southern whites. Griffith used innovative techniques to tell a powerful (although greatly biased) story. Nevertheless, the film was enormously popular and influential. Even President Woodrow Wilson was a fan, enthusiastically screening it in the White House. Historians agree that a "second era" of the KKK was largely the result of the blatant racism of Griffith's film. Few actions damaged race relations more than Griffith's film, which greatly bolstered white supremacy in the South.

Thus it seems curiously appropriate that Nate Parker, a black writer and actor, and now director, appropriated that title for his new film about Nat Turner. Parker, who co-wrote the script, also plays Nat Turner in the film, and shows us a wholly different individual than the one that most of us are familiar with from William Styron's 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron portrayed Turner as a psychopath who lusted after white women, but Parker's Nat Turner, although a slave, learns to read and becomes a gifted preacher. His relatively kindly master rents him out as a preacher for black slaves. His earliest sermons tell the slaves that they must tolerate this life but the afterlife will be glorious. As he sees the brutality of slavery first hand, Turner begins to recognize that he is being used as a narcotic to quiet slave resistance and begins to have visions. Once forgiving, Turner transforms himself into an avenging angel. Parker tells Turner's story in a fast paced, undiluted look at slavery's cruelties. Some of the scenes are almost painful to watch, and that surely is Parker's intention. This is essentially a one-character film, although the other characters are well drawn and acted. Parker is outstanding in this raw, powerful film with scenes that they are probably as accurate a portrayal of slavery as we could bear. Cinematography is outstanding, particularly the many nighttime interior scenes. His landscapes are beautiful, whether cotton fields or swamps, in sharp contrast with the horrors they contain. The gorgeous, often melancholy soundtrack is composed of black spirituals, hymns and even some rap.

The Birth of a Nation is a very accomplished film, surprisingly so for a first-time director. This is a great piece of filmmaking that will surely go on to have historical significance. I loved this very moving film for its power and insight, and found myself continuing to replay it in my mind. Running time: 120 minutes. Playing widely in the Bay Area, including the Kabuki.

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