Birth of a Nation

Few films arrive with as much controversy as Birth of a Nation. A promising run on the festival circuit (complete with a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival) gave way to scandal when disturbing details emerged about writer/director/star Nate Parker’s past. The movie is here now, but is it any good?

Birth of a Nation tells the true story of Nat Turner, a slave who learns to read at a young age and grows up into a preacher. Nat is paraded around to various plantations in an attempt to preach submission to his fellow slaves. But the more Nat is exposed to injustice, the harder it is to reconcile what he sees with Scripture. Eventually, Nat leads a violent uprising against white owners across the south.

Join Jon and Tim as they discuss the Nate Parker controversy, slavery, Nat Turner’s legacy, Black Lives Matter, Martin Luther King Jr., and whether violence is ever justified.

  • This was one of the most fascinating conversations!

    That opening question is something to dwell on for a long time. My quick take on how to treat people and the crimes of their past is this: We tend to make it unforgivable when we view them as a part of the opposition to what we stand for, and we tend to justify them when we don’t. In both situations we deny somebody’s dignity (either the victim or the perp); it’s like we forget that ideology does not equate to person-hood. Maybe this is because of the nature of our political climate? Maybe it’s because we want to justify something selfishly? I don’t know. I don’t think this is a new phenomena, but it’s incredible how quickly people will flip their moral compass (self included) based on our own personal bias.

    The Woody Allen example is pretty incredible — I think of how often it has been brought up in public by his children and ex-wife, and how quickly it gets glossed over; but then, not too long afterwards, you have a Stanford swimmer publicly crucified (I get that his prison sentence was light, but relative to other convictions of his crime it was “in-line” — which is a whole other problem to discuss — but his life is over forever, I assume… he is one of the most reviled people on the planet right now); and a lot of the people that were brushing off the Allen “incident” were equally vocal on the injustice of the Stanford conviction. To me that is bizarre, but then I know there are areas where I am a moral pancake too… it makes you reevaluate where you actually stand, and I think that is a good thing — to be challenged on assumptions.

    Thanks guys!

    • Thanks for listening, Brian! The artist vs. art question is difficult. Tim and I both said after the podcast that we hope we conveyed understanding for anyone who couldn’t watch this film because of Nate Parker’s personal life. Even approaching the topic of rape is a huge trigger for some, and I don’t fault those who feel the need to stay away from the film altogether.

      Having said that, one of the defining characteristics of a Christ-follower is love for sinners. We are a people saved by grace. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be discerning and uphold truth, but I also don’t think we should be participating in shame and condemnation. Our hope for even the vilest of sinners is that they experience the same freedom and transformation that Christ offered us. This grace should also allow us to appreciate art even if it comes from the hand of sinners. Bill Cosby has done unspeakable things to women, but The Cosby Show is still a beautiful work of comedy and truth. I don’t think the one necessarily nullifies the other.

      This is a difficult subject though, and I know there are passionate opinions on both sides. At the very least, it’s a discussion worth having! Thanks again for listening and sharing your thoughts.

  • Rachel Hedin

    Hi guys!?
    I have a very different take on the movie, but I really enjoyed your podcast and discussion. What a great service you’re providing. Thanks!
    I don’t need to ask if the past of the director should be taken into account on this film, because that history informed the entire work. I’m willing to bet that rape was used as a device almost as a form of righteousness signaling or even penance for past mistakes. But the WAY rape was used gave a very different, tragically ironic message.
    In this film, rape wasn’t about the abuse of power and denial of autonomy/personhood of women. It was a tool of war against the property of one group vs another. “Protect our women” and “rape their women” are two sides of the ownership coin. It’s objectifying and depersonalizing.
    How much voice did female characters have? How much agency vs victimhood?
    The director told us what he believes about women even as he tried to disavow it.
    That made the title more ironic than appropriative too. In the movie, Nat didn’t seek to overturn the oppressors so much as to become them. That’s a deep, insightful criticism of the Christianity of the day if we’ll hear it.
    Christianity was anthropomorphized into a God like a slave master. Jesus was a tool of oppression. A lot of things got worshipped there (power, whiteness, greed, misogyny and racism, etc) but none of it was actually God.
    The God answer to the objectification and depersonalization of both slavery and misogyny is to acknowledge and affirm the dignity and worth of each individual. Not to terrorize better than the terrorists.
    But how could Nat do that, given the prevailing misunderstanding of God’s nature? It’s not surprising that he went with revenge. Vengeance is the fastest track to becoming the oppressors. The Jesus Nat preached was consistent start to finish. Only thing different was who got to be labeled as the true sons of God (and their possessions, the women the unblemished ones… Thanks guys?)
    The question of nonviolence is moot… they weren’t worshippers of Jesus, the whites had only taught them the man made Christian Mars. And they followed him.
    The direction of the movie was the fruit of the heart of the director. It’s important. Worth seeing and talking about. But not true history, and not really about God. Call it Jesus of Sparta maybe, but it wasn’t a true Christ bridge, and that’s on white America. We gave God the tower of Babel treatment, amassed control over humans and made women property, and anyone who tried to get revenge got to become what they sought to destroy.
    Revolution is necessary sometimes. Self defense is a biological drive. The way we see God and our own right to vengeance determines outcomes in profound ways.
    Overall B
    Feminist D-
    Discussability A??

    • Powerful thoughts, Rachel! Thanks for sharing them. You’re right that the focus of the rape wasn’t on the violation of the woman, but on the need for male protection. That’s a much more subtle form of ownership, but ownership nonetheless. It’s sobering how sexism can creep up even with the best of intentions. I’m sure Parker thought he was honoring women with the material. Many Christian men advocate patriarchy genuinely believing it’s God’s sacred design for the home. Good intentions…while women’s voices are silenced and their sacred rights violated. We all have those blind spots. Lord, show me mine.

      Your point about the oppressed turning into the oppressors is the major problem I had with the film. We understand Nat’s outrage. Injustice should make us outraged! And yet, vengeance only perpetuates the cycle of violence and leaves peace further out of reach. But you and Tim both bring up great reality checks. We want Nat to be Martin Luther King Jr., but he only knew what he knew. And you’re so right in saying he was handed down the wrong God from white culture. Maybe Nat realized this in the end. I wonder if his last act was a conscious shift from oppression to sacrifice.

      Flawed or not, I’ve had some incredible discussions from this movie. Your letter grades are spot-on. 🙂