The Sword And The Sermon: A Review Of The Birth Of A Nation

In the course of time Moses grew up. Then he went to see his own people and watched them suffering under forced labor. He saw a Hebrew, one of his own people, being beaten by an Egyptian. He looked all around, and when he didn’t see anyone, he beat the Egyptian to death and hid the body in the sand.

-Exodus 2:11-12

The legacy of the American slave has been polluted by those who are ashamed, afraid, and reviled by its repulsiveness. The fact that the world’s greatest country was built off white supremacy is an ugly, festering wound that continues to tarnish every single achievement of the nation. As time has gone on, and those who practice white supremacy have become more nuanced, so too has the language surrounding the discussion of slavery in mainstream circles. For decades there was a widely held notion that Abraham Lincoln was the shining white abolitionist savior, who ended slavery out of the goodness of his own heart and lifted the white man’s burden of cruelty and oppression with one stroke of a pen.

Then there was the Roots miniseries, which took pains to portray white sympathizers throughout, who assisted and helped the slaves achieve freedom. Every single mainstream representation of American slavery has included an enlightened white friend, teacher, or advocate. This whitewashing has even permeated educational textbooks, being utilized as teaching tools across the country to inform the youth that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was merely a means of transporting “workers” to the southern United States to assist on agricultural plantations. It has been said that history is written by the victors, but when the “victory” at hand is the mass enslavement, rape, and lynching of a race of people, it can leave a rather bitter aftertaste. Those who practice white supremacy, and those who simply find the truth too abhorrent to confront it, have constructed many myths about both the origins of slavery and its outcome. Slaves were docile, afraid, and too deeply entrenched by Christianity to organize and fight back without some type of white savior. This, contrary to the fact that five major slave led revolts took place between 1739 and 1831, with 250 revolts and conspiracies taking place during the history of black enslavement.

Actor Nate Parker decided to bring the most well-known and infamous of these rebellions to cinema, in effect challenging the myth of the weak and spiritually castrated negro slave as well bringing to light a powerful and important factor of black survival, that of black love. As writer, director, producer and star, Nate Parker has crafted the passion of Nat Turner as that of a love story. Love for his father, his mother, his grandmother, his wife, and finally his people. Nate Parker plays Nat as a man burning with empathy, a love so deep and so painful that his eyes are swollen with unshed tears as he preaches to his people. For he understands that his greatest asset is a double edged sword, for love gets slaves tortured, beaten, and killed. The movie begins with a young Nat learning this lesson rather harshly. His father, who cannot bear to see his young son go hungry, treks out into the night to steal food for his family. Upon being accosted by slave drivers, he must flee from his family in order to protect them.

As Nat grows older, he is marked as a special child, being able to read at a time when education for a slave was a death sentence. Instead of punishing him, the master’s wife takes a liking to young Nat, and takes him away from his protective mother and grandmother to teach him to read. He is only allowed to read one book—the Bible. As he becomes a prodigy of scripture, the master’s son, Samuel Turner, is reared to become the successor of the family plantation. Despite Nat’s talents he is sent to work the cotton field, where again, the love of his mother cannot protect him, as his hands bleed profusely while he labors. Parker portrays Nat’s adult years as that of repetition. He is favored by Samuel, as he preaches the Gospel to the slaves every Sunday, and it is his talents for being able to keep his brethren God-fearing and loyal, that provides Samuel the opportunity to rent Nat’s services amongst the other southern plantations.

It is during one of these excursions that Nat meets his future wife Cherry (portrayed with a soft regality by Aja Naomi King) and during this sequence, Nat’s heart once again feels the joy of love. Nate Parker and Aja King have a sweet chemistry to their romance that feels like the one true freedom in a world of shackles. When Nat presents Cherry with flowers, it is with the chivalry of a Knight Of The Roundtable kneeling before a lady at Court. When he kisses her and proposes, the scene effectively evokes the emotion of a man without even his freedom to his name, offering his life in service not to man or master, but to her. When Nat once again journeys to preach the Word to his fellow slaves, he is already somewhat changed, but it is the constant abuse suffered by his congregation that seeds the dawning of a new emotion within his soul—wrath.

Nat begins to preach a “new” song. One spoken in code, not of meekness but of might. Not of blind faith, but of revolution. And his love for his fellow man swells as his spirit feels the righteousness of his words. Nat’s faith is tested when Cherry is violently raped and brutalized by slave catchers, this coincides with Samuel’s embracement of his slaves as prized cattle to be showcased as he sees fit. “Where is God now?” Asks one slave, as he leads his wife, freshly raped by one of Samuel’s compatriots, back to the slave quarters, helplessness and rage etched into his face. Nat’s final sign comes as he is beaten within an inch of his life by Samuel as punishment for baptizing a white man. Final proof that love, even for that of his oppressor, is not enough to save him. Sermon gives over to sword as Nat organizes and prepares for a swift and brutal justice. When the rebellion finally commences—in a stirring and triumphant sequence between himself and Samuel—Nat literally steps out of the dark and into the light, embracing his destiny as a hero and no longer simply content to wait for God to punish evil. God did not choose Nat Turner, Nat Turner chose himself.

This film, like Nat Turner’s determination, is a triumph of black love. Nate Parker has packed his film with messages and themes of the integrity, bravery, and heroism of the black race. This film touches on so many important topics, topics that are sadly all to relevant in modern day society, that one’s only wish were that it were a bit longer and that Nate Parker had been afforded a more handsome shooting budget. The white savior trope is blessedly excised, the dialogue is alight with meaning and purpose. The actors all commit to their roles. Nate Parker’s Birth Of A Nation takes D.W. Griffith’s revoltingly racist and offensive original title and gives it back to those from whom it was stolen. Those who refused to be victims, those who refused to owned, those who refused to allow their humanity to be torn from them.

It is the best film of 2016. It is the Gospel of Emancipation.


By Alonge Hawes

Alonge Hawes is a writer from Stone Mountain, GA and the creator of the Blue Collar Hustle web series. in his spare time he enjoys studying African American history and obsessively deciphering the lyrics of Nas, Kendrick Lamar, and Common.