It is rare for a mainstream Hollywood movie to take a positive view of the Bible.
“The Birth of a Nation” looks at the Bible from a clear-eyed point of view. It is so clear-eyed that it is easy to see the Bible as one of the characters in the movie.
“The Birth of a Nation” tells the story of Nat Turner.
At the beginning of the movie, we see young Nat still in Africa. He is going through a ritual where he is declared to be a leader and a prophet of his people.
The story moves forward as young Nat is now a slave on a plantation in Virginia. The mistress of the plantation (Penelope Ann Miller) discovers that Nat can read. She takes Nat into her house and teaches him lessons.
When Nat arrives in the library of the house, he sees lots of books. He reaches for a book, but the mistress tells him that is not for him. It contains white people’s laws and he is not to read this. What she gives him is a Bible and teaches him to read from it.
Because he can read the Bible, older Nat (Nate Parker) becomes a preacher to the slave community. He speaks of what the Bible says about slaves and how they should obey their masters.
Word gets out that Nat can preach and the local white pastor (Mark Boone Jr. ) comes to Nat’s owner (Armie Hammer) and tells him that money can be made off Nat.
What he needs to do is take Nat to the other plantations and have him preach to tell the slaves to stay in line and follow what the Bible says.
What follows are several scenes in which Nat goes and preaches to other slaves. What he sees is the condition of other slaves who have it much worse than he does.
Nat sees the mistreatment of the slaves and you see the struggle within Nat to preach to them about being people that submit to their overlords.
There comes a moment when Nat can take it no more. He has read the Bible and knows what it says.
In a confrontation between him, his master and the pastor, Nat contradicts every verse they use to tell him to submit with words he found that tell him to rise up.
The Bible moves from being a book of submission to a book of defiance. What follows is that moment when Nat can no longer be submissive and he begins a rebellion against the whites. His goal is to free the slaves from their bonds.
I like the fact that the Bible in this movie is taken seriously. There is a mature point of view about the Bible.
It is clear that Nate Parker, the writer and director, wants to convey that the Bible can be used to both hold people down and also raise them up.
When Nat declares that for every word he reads that is supposed to keep slaves under the thumbs of their masters, he can find another that says to throw off the bonds of slavery. We know that the Bible is that two-edged sword of which Hebrews 4:12 speaks.
But this movie is flawed. Its greatest flaw is that there are no white characters with any redeeming value. All of them are people that use their slaves in terrible ways.
The closest person with any real concern for the slaves was the mistress of the house. But she caves in when her husband declares Nat should be sent back to the field.
The pastor in the movie is shown to be nothing short of a reprobate. He is like a character out of a Graham Greene novel.
Asking for gin when he is offered water, he is little more than an enabler of the sins that are placed upon the black characters in the movie.
Yet, this is a movie that is worth seeing.
Is it heavy handed? Yes, but the point of the Bible’s importance is the reason for seeing it.
It gives way to a needed discussion about the place of the Bible in the maintaining of social order and whether the Bible can be used for ends other than spiritual renewal.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.
MPAA rating: R for disturbing violent content and some brief nudity.
Director and writer: Nate Parker
Cast: Nate Parker: Nat Turner; Armie Hammer: Samuel Turner; Penelope Ann Miller: Elizabeth Turner; Jackie Earle Haley: Raymond Cobb; Mark Boone Jr.: Rev. Zalthall.
The movie’s website is here.