This past week I had the pleasure of attending a pre-screening of “Birth of a Nation” – a riveting film about the life of Nat Turner, the leader of the only effective and sustained slave rebellion in U.S. history. The film melds the themes of religion, race in America, awakening and freedom in a conflicted, quite unsettling way. I think every Christian should see Birth of a Nation for those very reasons. Any person who watches this movie and walks away without having to challenge their own thoughts around these themes is likely a dead soul.
Before the film started there was a heaviness in the air that I hadn’t felt in a movie theater since Fruitvale Station. I already knew the end of the story. We were prepped that there were some jarring scenes – that was to be expected in a movie about slavery. But what was the heaviest was the fact that the sentiment in the room was that we were all silently pining for Nat’s story to somehow speak to us in present day. We looked to his fight for freedom to give us some glimmer of hope. It felt like I had just strapped my seatbelt for a roller coaster ride. Even though I was a tad frightened of what was to come, I knew the end and looked forward to a huge sigh of relief when the credits rolled. It never came.
Nat Turner’s God Given Destiny
The filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving the story of Turner’s life and how his purpose was evident from childhood. He was born to do this work. Intelligent, strong, savvy, deeply spiritual, and unabashedly bold. I could easily relate to his character, his conflict in his faith and how he rose above the conflict and used his faith to take a stance and motivate others to do the same.
Turner was only 31 when he died. The fact of his age wasn’t eloquently told in the film, but I think it brings credence to the fact that young people are today’s leaders. I witness the squelching of young voices in today’s justice movement that baffles me. We are told we are too immature, too radical, too bold. But history tells us that young people are the ones who have the vigor and unsullied faith to be brazen and challenge the status quo.
The More Things Change…
One glaring thing I saw was how although this story took place in the early 1800s, yet the same themes are relevant. As a young, black Christian today, it is conflicting when you are constantly being told to turn the other cheek, pray and remain hopeful that things will change. It is disheartening that many of our religious leaders are not confident enough to honestly face the fact that the people they serve are suffering Sunday after Sunday when another week passes and another black body is lynched in America. It is angering that the gospel message has been twisted to fit the purpose of our oppressor and our leaders constantly go along with it. Watching Nat Turner’s awakening when he realized that his ministry was being compromised for someone else’s gain was awe inspiring. Especially because this someone toed the line of having a “decent” relationship with him while still oppressing him. He stood in the face of his opposition, using the same gospel message to preach liberation instead of subjugation. This was when my inner freedom fighter yelled out in the theater as though Nat could hear me. This was when Nat’s story truly began to minister to me.
The Irony of It All
The controversy around Nate Parker’s rape allegations should certainly not cause this story to be lost. I honestly see the irony in the name of the film, after D.W. Griffin’s 1915 grimy white supremacy campaign, as brilliant if not supernatural. I won’t share my thoughts or comments on Parker’s rape case in depth, but I will say I see that juxtaposed against the backdrop of this film as ironic as well. In my opinion, every Christian should see Birth of a Nation if we all stand in the belief that we are to liberate the oppressed and be a voice for the voiceless. We should all see the film if we are ready to be honest about ourselves, America, and our position as people of faith in walking out the gospel message of awakening and liberation.