The truth is really hard to take, especially historical truth. I was reminded once again of this reality by the conversation taking place around Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s controversial film about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt. To be sure, the conversation was supposed to be bigger. The film was the talk of Sundance, sold for a record $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, and seemed primed to dominate Oscar season.
Then the same social-justice Left that was about to build the film into a phenomenon found out that Parker had been accused of raping a woman in college. When he publicly addressed the controversy feminists found him inappropriately insensitive, some presumed his guilt (despite his acquittal), and just like that the buzz vanished. The film fizzled at the box office, and the “national conversation” it was supposed to trigger about slavery and oppression has been confined mainly to a few think pieces on a few left-leaning sites.
That’s too bad. First, I’m generally inclined to judge films on their merits, not on the politics or life stories of the filmmakers. Second, and more important in this instance, the failure of the film leaves Turner’s revolt in a place where it doesn’t belong — in the dusty back pages of the history books. In fact, at the time (and for years afterward), it was inarguably one of the most important events in American life.
To understand why, you have to understand what really happened. And that’s where the film fails. One expects a bit of historical license in any movie, so it’s easy to forgive the addition of a few ahistorical elements, but Parker actually ramped down the drama. When Turner launched his real-life revolt, it wasn’t so much a battle against white oppression as it was a pure killing spree — a mass murder of 57 people that included women and young children. Turner’s men hacked kids to death. In one instance, they attacked a school. In another, they reportedly returned to a house after they realized they’d left a child alive. They killed an infant in its cradle and dumped the body in a fireplace.
After the militia put down the rebellion, numerous white citizens responded with a killing spree of their own, lynching perhaps more than 200 black men and women, slave and free. As more militia poured into the region (rumors of a more widespread rebellion were swamping the South), they committed unspeakable atrocities — torturing, burning, and decapitating suspected insurgents often without the slightest pretext or evidence.
Ultimately, Virginia authorities intervened to stop the terror, but the killing then moved to the courts — where 17 more men were sentenced to death. Across the South, the revolt triggered a wave of fear, anguish, and hate. Some called for the end of slavery, others for the expulsion of slaves, and still others threatened to exterminate the black population.
The psychological effect was profound. Innocent black men and women suffered vicious violence. Calls for emancipation fell largely on deaf ears, and the response to the rebellion mainly served to tighten the slavers’ grip. Hundreds of thousands of white southerners lived in terror of another revolt, and when John Brown tried to launch a mass-scale slave rebellion by seizing the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, they interpreted it as attempted genocide. When northern abolitionists celebrated Brown and treated him as a righteous martyr in a holy cause, white southerners believed that northern radicals wanted them dead.
It’s much harder to deal with the truth — that sometimes the alleged heroes were also villains, capable of monstrous crimes.
Indeed, if one looks at arguments for secession, the fear that the north was intent on inciting a slave revolt is repeated time and again. And when white southerners thought of an insurrection they thought of Nat Turner, of children being hacked to death in their beds. Do you wonder why so many southerners took up arms as northern armies advanced? It wasn’t all white supremacy. There was also fear — fear born out of a real incident, an incident that was magnified in the retelling.
In modern times — perhaps in all times — there is a tendency to view oppression through a simplistic moral lens. We identify the brutal evil of slavery, and we want all the stories of resistance to be noble and heroic. Indeed, when good ultimately triumphs — when the oppression ends — the temptation to whitewash the resistance can become overwhelming. We want our rebels to be heroes, and we want our villains to be almost cartoonish in their obvious evil.
It’s much harder to deal with the truth — that sometimes the alleged heroes were also villains, capable of monstrous crimes. The great blessing of America is that while we’ve always had our share of villains, we’ve had more than our share of men and women who offered a truly better way. Time and again, in the struggle to define the American nation, the heroes have triumphed. Other nations haven’t been so fortunate. The great tragedy of the French Revolution, for example, wasn’t the overthrow of the monarchy, but it’s replacement with the fresh hell of the Reign of Terror. In Russia, no one weeps for the Czars, but Communism was the far deadlier evil.
We shape our future in part by how we remember the past. While the modest modern wave of interest in Turner is entirely appropriate — he’s one of American history’s more significant actors — modern appreciation is not. And to the extent that anyone looks to him as an inspiration or role model, they push their own vision of appropriate resistance in a dark direction. There is no shortage of black heroes in the struggle against slavery and for civil rights — including men who took up arms. Nat Turner should not be counted in their number.
Birth of a Nation is a powerful film. To the extent that it lionizes Turner, however, it does our culture and our history a disservice. Not all resistance fighters are virtuous. Sometimes the oppressed are oppressors and murderers who are merely waiting their turn. That’s a lesson worth learning. I’m not sure it’s the lesson the filmmakers wanted to teach.