“The Birth of a Nation,” is one of the most intriguing passion projects I’ve seen come out of Hollywood in recent memory. I write “passion project” because it was birthed from the hard work of Nate Parker, the talented filmmaker and actor who wrote, directed, and produced the film. And he stars in the leading role too. The film is certainly a crowning achievement for Parker. I should add, according to my contacts with people in the industry, Nate Parker is a devout Christian. He wasn’t a Christian in his younger years, but later in his life he found Christ. This certainly shows in the screenplay, which displays a wide breadth of knowledge of Scripture. Much of the screenplay, in fact, is quoting directly from the Bible. (I love, for example, how one of the first lines of dialogue in the film is a young Nat Turner quoting James 4 about not being “double-minded,” which becomes a prominent theme for the entire story.)
That being said, this is not a simple paint-by-the-numbers “faith-based” movie. It is tackling the true (and often grisly) story of Nat Turner, a slave-turned-preacher-turned-insurrectionist who believed himself to be an instrument of God’s wrath upon the wicked slaveholders and so-called Christians who, during the high tide of slavery in the South, twisted and contorted God’s Word to justify horrendous misdeeds against other human beings. This film tackles–and displays vividly–a gritty, stomach-churning chapter of evil in America’s Jekyll and Hyde history. And for that reason the film provokes a complicated mix of emotions and questions. More on all of that in the “worldviews” section.
By the way–before we go any further–if you haven’t read my reviews before, here is how my weird structure works:
- If the movie is good, I talk about why the movie works so well as a form of entertainment and why it’s worth buying a movie ticket for a night out.
- I dive into the worldview and deeper layers to explore what this film is saying or perhaps look into discussion-worthy topics that might be related to the film.
- I conclude with an “application” section. I believe movies are meant for more than just disposable consumption, but they’re things we can take with us to make our lives better.
You might say this style of film review is based loosely on the inductive method of study: observe, interpret, and apply.
(Observations) Entertainment Value and Film Craft
Nate Parker, as mentioned in the introduction, is not only a top-tier acting talent, he is a gifted writer and director. The film has gotten strong numbers on Rotten Tomatoes (currently 79%), and its nimble, elegant but visceral execution of the story–a wrath-of-God revenge story reminiscent of William Wallace’s righteous vengeance in “Braveheart”—is certainly deserving of those numbers. Every role is performed superbly–especially Parker’s gentle, earnest-hearted Nat Turner who transforms convincingly from a soft-hearted man of God into a fire-breathing prophet declaring (and enacting) doom upon the double-minded people who commit horrendous atrocities while claiming to be God-fearing people. The atmospheric recreation of the antebellum South is immersive, and it pulls the emotions and imagination right into the story from the first frame. While the violence is disturbing and deserving of an R rating, the camera doesn’t focus on the minute, grisly, gory details as many R-rated movies tend to do. It doesn’t need to. The historical realism and the nightmarish evil of some of these violent acts are disturbing enough to make the film’s point: what these slaveholders were doing was pure evil.
(Interpretation) Worldviews and Deeper Layers of Meaning–This Film Does Make a Point: Jesus is Not Only Prophesied to Bring Peace, But Also to Bring Wrath
American slaveholders commit horrendous deeds of violence and rape against innocent people in this film. Some of the things they do to the slaves made me sick to my stomach. Knowing that these things happened in history makes it even more nauseating. In the introduction, I compared the film to the 1995 epic film “Braveheart,” directed by Mel Gibson, which is also based on an historical figure and a real life revenge story. In that latter film, the viewer sees through William Wallace’s eyes as he witnesses the English commit monstrous atrocities against the Scottish people. When Wallace finally rises up to give the English a taste of their own medicine, you can’t help but cheer him on. In some ways it’s a little disturbing because moviegoers actually find themselves applauding Wallace’s violent massacre of his enemies during battle.
“The Birth of a Nation” brings the moviegoer through the same paces. Like the English in “Braveheart,” the white slaveholders shown in the film do such awful things that when Turner finally rises up as God’s sword of vengeance, you’re whispering in your heart, “That’s right! Let ’em have it!” I have to admit, I felt guilty and conflicted as I realized I was quietly cheering for such violent revenge. Why? Because my conscience remembers Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies and pray for those who spitefully use you.” What’s interesting about “The Birth of a Nation” is that we see Nat Turner wrestle with the same conundrum in the early acts of the film as he does his best to maintain a peaceful attitude toward the slaveholders despite the evil. He tries to turn the other cheek, and it presents a difficult question to Turner’s Christ-following heart: did Jesus’ commands to love your enemy mean that Christians must remain passivists at all times? Certainly some Christians today believe that (i.e. the Mennonites). But like William Wallace, Nat Turner does not see a passivist-at-all-times doctrine in Jesus’ teachings. And for Turner it goes beyond theological debate. Through various signs and convictions, Turner becomes convinced that God is specifically calling him to become an instrument of judgment upon the Southern slaveholders who have dragged the name of Christ through the mud with their double-minded living and twisted interpretation of God’s Word.
Whether Christians are called to always be passivists no matter what evil befalls them, well, that is a complicated and lengthy debate. If it were true that Christianity is passivist without exception, then millions of Christian Americans would have had to refrain from fighting in WWII. I don’t think any Christian today regrets that America fought against the Axis powers. Earlier I mentioned the Mel Gibson film “Braveheart.” Interestingly, Gibson has a new movie coming out in November about a passivist soldier who served on the frontlines of WWII without using any weapons because of his beliefs. In a way Gibson has two movies with contrary views: one sees violence against evil as necessary, even a moral obligation, while the other sees a total abstinence from violence as necessary. “The Birth of a Nation” raises the same complicated questions. The theological debate that surrounds that topic is far beyond the scope of this movie review, so I will leave it unanswered. Suffice it to say that Parker’s film brings those challenging questions to the forefront of the moviegoer’s mind.
I will say this: “The Birth of a Nation,” through a few subtle lines of dialogue, does make an interesting point that Christ is not just the gentle Prince of Peace and the meek Lamb that is so strongly emphasized in Western culture and in American churches. There is more to Him, according to the Bible. We should not forget that the prophesies that Jesus quotes in Isaiah about Himself and the visions in Revelation depict Him as a fierce warrior-king returning at the end of the age to bring a final wrath upon the wicked Antichrist and his evil armies.
Another note about “The Birth of a Nation”: I won’t say how (to avoid spoilers), but the film makes a direction connection between Nat Turner’s violent uprising and the Civil War. This is a fascinating connection, and it gives more weight to the argument that perhaps Nat Turner really was a forewarning of doom sent from God upon the American South in the 1800s, and that the Civil War was the final maturation of that judgment that God was sending upon America for its participating in slavery. In other words, Nat Turner perhaps was a warning to the South. The South did not heed that warning–they increased their evil, in fact–and thus came the Civil War, which claimed thousands upon thousands of lives in the South and decimated their wealth.
I should add: the American Christian community in the South was not the only people group guilty of sustaining the slave trade in the world at that time. It was not a uniquely American sin, in other words. It was a global collaboration. There were people groups in the Middle East–entire religious groups, in fact–who were conquering and capturing Africans during that time period and sending them on the slave ships to America. The slavery began among non-Americans in Africa, but Americans sustained the trade and made it profitable.
Another historical angle on that time: there were also large groups of Christians who were in abolition movements to end slavery once and for all in both America and in England. The Christian influence in Britain (i.e. William Wilberforce) helped form Britain into a deeply anti-slavery nation that used its military to destroy slave traders and slave castles in Africa. It is an awful shame that Americans in the South did not emulate Britain in this way after the American Revolution.
Conclusion (and Application): Let Us Fear God and Not Take Him Lightly
One thing hits home with this film: God still becomes angry at evil in the world. And though Christ brings grace, the Book of Revelation (and even the seven letters to the churches) is clear: Christ also brings severe discipline and punishment to Christians who live as hypocrites, and He brings wrath and judgment upon those who actively war against Him. Not only that, Christ promises to bring a final judgment to every soul who has ever rejected His light and embraced evil.
Jesus Christ is good, but He is not safe. We should not make that mistake of thinking Him harmless. And we should not treat Him with that casual flippancy as if He were “Buddy Jesus.” No, the Lord Jesus Christ and His Father are to be feared–especially today in this modern world that so often laughs at the mere mention of God.
In a roundabout way, no matter which side of the passivism debate you fall on, “The Birth of a Nation” reminds us to maintain a healthy fear of God in our hearts–especially for Christians who are living double-minded, hypocritical religious lives as those in the South were doing in the 1800s.
Want to read more reviews like this one? Sign up for our email alerts and get notified when we post a new review.
Content advisory for this film…
Note: This film is rated R. The parental guidance content advisory is written from a Christian worldview. I am a person of faith with orthodox Christian beliefs like those expressed in “The Everlasting Man” by G. K. Chesterton, “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis, and “The Pursuit of God” by A. W. Tozer. That being said, I do not believe that the depiction of evil, even graphic depictions of evil or negative themes in films, is in itself always immoral. I believe it depends on the context and the worldview behind the film’s depiction of evil. All that being said, I try to report the content that gives the film its rating so that you can make an informed decision about viewing the film. Some people need to know detailed information about the content, some do not, in order to make a decision. I try to provide enough detail to give you a sense of the nature of the content. If you need more detail to make a better decision, I recommend visiting PluggedIn.com, as they provide extremely detailed reports of a movie’s content.
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality: One scene shows a man and a woman on their honeymoon naked from the wastes up. Sex is not depicted; the couple is merely facing each other, looking into each other’s eyes.
Violence/Gore/Scary/Disturbing Content: The film has a great deal of R-rated violence, some of it disturbing. A man has his teeth chiseled out with a hammer and chisel. Another man is beheaded with an axe. These are perhaps the two most violent examples. Because of the topic being addressed, there is much murder, abuse, and cruel violence depicted. The camera does not linger on the gory details (i.e. when the man is beheaded, it is seen from a distance and the camera cuts away during the actual act of violence–only the aftermath is seen).
Language: Plenty of misuses of God’s name paired with the d-word, mostly (ironically) by the supposed God-fearing Southern slaveholders. I suspect this was intentional to show how hypocritical these people were.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Slaveholders are seen drinking wine and liquor in a variety of settings.