It is not often that a celebrated literary work can be paired with the title of one of the nation’s most controversial race films and end up a cinematic critical success. That is what viewer’s will find in actor/writer/director Nate Parker’s film, The Birth of a Nation. The film, inspired by William Styron’s 1966 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Confessions of Nat Turner, earned a rare standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival. Critics have praised the work as bold. The film might come off lighter at the box office, yet in the film industry there are whispers about an Oscar. All that, despite the fact that the movie title hails word for word from the 1915 U.S. classic silent film drama by the late director D.W. Griffith, considered to be lethal racist propaganda.
Seymour Stern’s D. W. Griffith’s 100th Anniversary The Birth of a Nation, edited by Ira Gallen offers insight into the director and the title of the early Twentieth Century movie. However readers not afraid to look squarely into the nation’s historic racial literary heritage might want to check out novel that inspired Griffith, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.
The story of Nat Turner’s ill-fated slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, originally came to most American’s attention through Styron’s work, yet there is a narrative attributed to Nat Turner. It is said that The Confessions of Nat Turner The Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va. As Fully and Voluntarily Made to Thomas R. Gray… is a confession from a prison cell before the slave preacher turned radical abolitionist was hanged in August 1831.
As the true story goes, Turner and as many as 57 compatriots roamed the back roads Virginia plantations on the night of Aug. 21, 1831 and slaughtered whole families of slaveholders in a bid for their freedom. They are said to have killed as many as 65 whites. The rebels were captured and killed by white militiamen who killed as many as 200 non-rebel blacks in retaliation. Also, at that time Virginia and the other colonies tightened the grip on slaves and free blacks with laws that forbid or restricted the rights to education, assembly, bear arms and vote.
This story and others are part of the birth and emergence of American society that haunts and depresses many citizens. Most people do not like to talk or think about slavery. Even more know so little about the past that an exploration of the above mentioned books is worthwhile. Indication’s are, those who check out Nate Parker’s film will leave shocked and inspired. Perhaps the exposure to this important tale through the literature behind it, will lessen the blow.