Creating a film amounts to a series of choices. In bringing the life of slave rebel Nat Turner to the big screen in The Birth of a Nation, director Nate Parker can choose to embellish one fact over another, to rewrite history, and even to invent plot lines for the sake of drama. Spectatorship constitutes an equally if not more important series of choices — you can choose to watch or not watch, to accept or reject a filmmaker, to praise or judge his or her work.
But choice is the province of the living. Within the framework of historical dramatization, the only people denied decision-making power are the historical subjects themselves. They cannot choose their legacy, nor how they’re represented, nor who drags their corpses into the present. Nat Turner cannot choose his re-animator.
In the case of The Birth of a Nation, the vapors of history are Nate Parker’s to shape. The film begins with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” In the opening scene, young Nat Turner’s (Tony Espinosa) messianic future is divined by mud-caked spiritualists, who say he bears the mark of a prophet and leader. His prodigious tendencies are nurtured by his white mistress Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), who teaches young Nat to read the Bible. However, he cannot escape work as a field hand. During his first cotton-picking venture, he pricks his finger — the spray of his blood across the white bulbs becomes a prescient omen of what’s to come.
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