Mel Gibson’s blueprint to “Braveheart” does a disservice to Turner’s rebellion Final Grade- D
First-time director Nate Parker takes full advantage of the Hollywood… surge in independent, minority filmmakers tackling long ignored characters and events. Parker wrote, directed, produced and stars as Nat Turner, leader of the bloodiest slave rebellion in US history. In August of 1831, Turner and a band of devoted followers murdered 60 white men, women, and children in Southampton, Virginia. Turner’s rebels killed nearly everyone they encountered, including the brutal beheading of an infant. The Virginia militia suppressed the rebellion on August 23, though Turner eluded capture until October. Virginia authorities executed 56 blacks in retaliation- historians believe as many as 120 slaves may have been killed in the aftermath. Turner was hanged on November 11.
Parker touches on the history with short strokes… choosing to follow the well-used revenge trope utilized by Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”. Turner’s true motivation was religious- a devout Baptist, Turner claimed to receive a calling from God to free his people and punish their oppressors. Parker’s Turner is religious, but it barely serves as a set piece- Parker focuses intently on the rape and beating of Turner’s wife and the wife of his chief conspirator(conjectural.) The comparisons to Gibson’s film about Scottish rebel William Wallace are striking- martyrdom driven by bloody revenge- a simple, yet effective way to make a movie. History is complex and often messy and Parker’s film misses the mark telling the accurate story of Turner’s rebellion. Villains are beheaded by righteous warriors and the heroes fall in a blaze of glory on the battlefield. Missing are the atrocities, drunkenness, and religion that comprised those complicated 48 hours. Far from a pitched battle, Turner’s rebellion could not be sustained when confronted with better armed, and determined troops. Parker’s final battle is complete with the slow motion charging, battle axes thrust defiantly into the air, muted cries of “Freedom” drowned out by the artillery of the antagonists- minus the face paint and kilts.
There are powerful images found in Parker’s film… but the script is too conventionally written to capture the historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion. Parker only briefly touches on Turner’s confessional, a stark testimony given by Turner to a lawyer shortly before his hanging. In his own words, Turner chillingly describes every murder he and his followers committed. He leaves little doubt that he believed it was God’s will, much like John Brown’s convictions thirty years later. The ironic title Parker conceived is far from proper acknowledgment of the impact this event had on history. States throughout the South strengthened already oppressive laws limiting freedoms to slaves and their owners- including the right to unconditional manumission. Many of these changes came about to placate poor whites, who felt especially vulnerable following the bloodshed. Too much attention falls upon Parker’s Turner and his motivations- lost are the deeper religious and cultural motivations for the uprising.
Nat Turner boldly declared “I had the same revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” Nate Parker’s film fails to appropriately portray the complexities and historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion. Conventional Hollywood treatment of historical events often lead to missed opportunities- precisely how “Birth of a Nation” treats Nat Turner.