A number of years ago a friend asked me what I knew about Nat Turner. We had been talking about my interest in American history, specifically the history of race and racism, and he was using Turner as a litmus test. If I knew about the nineteenth-century preacher and his rebellion, then the discussion could continue. If I didn’t, then my knowledge was too limited and the discussion was over. A few months ago I had to inform this friend that he was going to have to find a new test, and I was reminded of that earlier this week when I saw the trailer for the 2016 film, The Birth of a Nation.
The Birth of a Nation, written and directed by Nate Parker, is the story of Nat Turner, and it made news back in January when it premiered and won big at the Sundance Film Festival. In addition to winning the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, Fox Searchlight Pictures also bought the film for $17.5 million in the largest deal in festival history. Back in January it seemed clear that scores of moviegoers would soon learn about Nat Turner. In a few months, he will no longer be a relatively unknown figure in American history, and so it seems my friend is going to have to find a new way to gauge whether or not he wants to continue talking to you. What struck me while watching the trailer this week, however, is that that in addition to learning about Nat Turner, audiences might also learn quite a bit about American Christianity and slavery.
First off, a few caveats:
1) I have not seen this film yet. It’s being released in October, and I am nowhere near fancy enough to have been able to see it early. I have only read about it and seen the trailer.
2) I am aware that cinematic depictions of the past can often be problematic. Movies are meant to entertain and filmmakers are known for exercising their artistic license. Whether they distort the past in order to make the story more interesting or relatable, or they do so in order to make some larger point, there is no shortage of films that have received intense criticism for misrepresenting history. Having not seen the movie, though, I obviously can’t comment on the historical accuracy, so that discussion will have to wait until after the film’s release.
3) Since I have not yet seen The Birth of a Nation, my reaction here is just to the two-minute trailer. I realize that in many ways this is far too little to go on, but in another way I think that it is more than enough. I know that trailers are meant to attract an audience, and they therefore tend to focus on the most appealing moments in the film, even if they are not representative of the whole picture. At some point everyone has left a theater disappointed because the movie wasn’t what they expected or they’d already seen all the best parts in the preview. That having been said, even if we assume for the sake of argument that the trailer is not representative of the entire piece, we know that a team put this preview together as the most appealing two-minute introduction possible. What’s so striking is that this introduction revolves around religion. Every word of this preview (and much of the imagery) is about Christianity.
The first half of the trailer is set to Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” and opens on a cotton field that goes on for as far as we can see. It then turns to a cross and shows Nat Turner, played by Nate Parker, sitting in a church. The first words spoken are by Turner, saying “Heavenly Father, we come to thank you for your word and your will.” He’s praying on behalf of a table full of white dinner guests. The next statement comes from a white man who shoves Turner towards a group of slaves, telling them, “You listen to him, and you might just make it into heaven.” It then returns quickly to the dinner table where the guests proclaim, “Amen.” In addition to these moments of dialogue, there are also images of suffering and a few of happiness. There is a clip of Turner handing flowers to Cherry, a woman widely thought to have been his wife, and sunlight streaming over treetops. But there are also images of darkness. We see a man running in the woods at night, a man with a gun held to his head, and a white child leading a black child around with a rope tied around her neck. The preacher, now speaking to the group of slaves, advises them, saying “Submit yourselves to your maters with all respect.” These words are paired with images that suggest the rape of Cherry by a group of white men. Although it is less than 60 seconds, the opening of this trailer touches on so much. It presents the Christianity of white slave owners. It connects the institution of slavery to American Christians and illustrates how many white Americans hoped to present a specific form of Christianity to slaves in order to control them. It also suggests the horrors of slavery without denying the humanity of enslaved people. In just the few shots of Parker’s face, we see the growing disgust that Turner must have felt and the impossible position that he was in. He was a devout man who wanted to preach, but he was forced to present Christianity in a way that was meant to oppress and control. He looks tortured as he preaches those few lines about submission. And then the music stops.
At this midway point the entire tone of the trailer shifts. The preacher’s demeanor begins to change. We are now shown the Christianity of Turner and this slave community. While the music pauses, we see Turner speaking to a small group of slaves after one of them is forced to his knees, and he begins reciting part of Psalm 149. He says, “Brethren, I pray you sing a new song.” The camera then turns briefly to Samuel Turner as he looks over with surprise at hearing these words coming from his slave’s mouth. At this point the music changes. Rather than a sorrowful song about lynching, the music is now fast paced and instrumental. With drumming in the background, Turner begins speaking with increasing passion and fervor, saying, “Sing praise in the assembly of the righteous. Let the saints be joyful in glory. Let the high praise of God be on the mouths of the saints and a two-edged sword in their hand to execute vengeance on the demonic nations and punishment on those peoples to bind their kings with chains. This honor have all his saints. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. Sing to him a new song.” This is Turner’s Christianity. He is no longer bound to the message of the slave owner, and he is no longer speaking on behalf of or to the white population. He is speaking to slaves, and he is presenting them with an alternative form of Christianity, a form that’s rebellious and vengeful and that recognizes the humanity of black people. A version that calls them to be joyful and free and that condemns those who oppress them. There is no hesitation in his words and the pain and sadness is gone from his face. During this monologue we see flashes of the slave community. Turner sitting by a fire at night holding a bible while other men approach. A group of African Americans running through the woods and then up to Samuel Turner’s house with torches. We see Nat Turner and Cherry playing with their child and group of African Americans participating in what appears to be a ring shout. Then, near the end we see the famous solar eclipse, the sign from God that it was time to bring about a bloody revolt. The trailer ends with two groups of armed men, one white and one black, all Christians, charging at each other.
This two-minute trailer does a wonderful job illustrating such an important point about Christianity in the antebellum South. It was diverse. Many white slave owners believed without a doubt that they had a God-given right to own slaves and that they could manipulate and better control slave communities by Christianizing them. This did not mean, however, that slaves accepted this version of Christianity. Even as slave owners attempted to regulate the message that was presented to their slaves, we know that Christianity meant something very different to many within the African American community, and from the looks of this trailer, this movie will illustrate this diversity and tension powerfully.