“God of Love or god of wrath” — Nat & Nate’s “Birth of A Nation” Review
Fear God, and give glory to Him for the hour of his judgment is come.” Revelation 14:7
The moving biopic Birth of A Nation, about the indomitable Nat Turner, aptly played and directed by Nate Parker, is a deep emersion into the spiritual realm and a subtle foray in the universal battle of good versus evil. It’s a beautifully directed movie with long and wide shots that capture the extent and nefarious intent of the slaveholding antibellum Southern economy. It’s a white supremacist economy built on fear and hate against beautiful black created with courage and love.
The drama unfolds with a citation from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes On The State of Virginia XVIII: Manners — “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep for ever.” This sets the stage for a story about a man — a man that represents many men, over many years, in many lands. A type of Moses living in the 19th Century Slaveholding County of Southampton, Virginia. Nat Turner is born to bring justice or borne to divinely “let his people go.” That’s the storm in Nat Turner’s heart. There can only be one mission — that is, one birthed from rage or one borne from love. Nat Turner initially follows the former inclination and decides to take on Pharaoh on his own accord, but later comes to see things differently when he submits to his Redeemer.
Nate Parker vividly brings to view how a Baptist minister could overtime disavow Biblical doctrine and kill scores of people in act of rebellion — or was it in an act of liberation, as Kanye would have you believe. In modern parlance, the internal battle Nat Turner faced is similar to that of a poor twenty-year old selling crack to feed his kin today juxtaposed to searching for a minimum wage job to feed his family tomorrow. It’s Martin and Malcolm fighting for real estate in Nat Turner’s spirit. Should he patiently wait for change or by “any means necessary” go out and grab it?
The monstrosity of slavery, as Jefferson also stated, for Nat Turner reached its zenith in the Summer of 1831. His decided will to destroy the system and the people that flogged his back and raped his wife and held captive his brethren for millenia was justification enough for a man of God, a preacher, to lead a revolt. Such as it is in the “hood” today, where a good number of youth are just trying to survive, and may not care to know what day it is — not to mention national holiday’s: Independence Day, Labor Day or Columbus Day, for that matter — as they contend in a daily war against the police state, and against each other for limited resources, so too, was it for Nat Turner and his brothers. Poignantly captured in the scene on the morning after of the revolt — each free black man, having never had the opportunity to reflect on life, take a second to reminisce, and take stock of their woeful condition by sharing their arduous and mundane daily routine tasks whilst enslaved just 24 hours prior to that. Then they celebrate their newly found freedom — even for a bit.
Every single moment of being a slave was oppressive. Every single moment of being a slave was abusive. Every single moment of being a slave was devilish. One could only endure a lifelong litany of horrid torture with a strong faith in God and an equally strong will to live despite the circumstances. Thus embedded in that will must have been hope — a temporal freedom story the Virginian slaves must have heard e.g. James Weekes moving up North to Crown Heights, Brooklyn to found a community named Weeksville or a wife and children that you hope would see a brighter day). But more than likely, their hope was built on an eternal freedom wrought by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and promise to Go to prepare for them a place in heaven — the Negro Spirituals often spoke of the Savior of the world that laid down His life in the most unjust and inhumane fashion for a wretch like me (all of mankind) that He may take it up (His life) again so that we may be called the sons and daughters of God. What love!
The notion that Nat Turner pastored slaves and, ostensibly, non-slaves of Southampton, Virginia, is a testament to the mysterious ways of God that he would use a “lowly” messenger in Nat Turner to preach the good news. Think of Paul. Think Matthew. Think of Andrew and Peter. All of these were outcasts that Christ called to Apostleship. Yet the earthly subject must be faithful to the heavenly Sender, even when he feels like Jesus did on the cross at Calvary, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me.” On losing his faith, the dark voices encased in the spirits and ancestors of old spoke to Nat Turner, and ultimately compelled him to lead the rebellion. Isaiah, which means Yawheh is Salvation, was the “house Negro” in the picture, portrayed by the renowned actor Roger Guenveur Smith (see most Spike Lee flicks). His pleadings that “Vengeance is the Lord’s” were conditions Nat Turner was no longer willing to accept after his wife was brutally raped by three white overseers, and after prematurely losing his mother to slave labor, and finally after being stripped and whipped by his master for daring to Baptize a white man. No wonder that Isaiah’s final condemnation just before the rebellion,that “God is of Love,” was boldly met by Nat Turner’s quip: “god is also of wrath,” suggesting that he would sidestep God’s love and deliver his own wrath. Enter the other voices — D’Evils.
In a weak moment of soul searching Nat Turner reaches to the mediums of his forefathers that were hijacked from their native motherland in Africa and brought to Southampton, Virginia. He engages a thought of rage and of self-sufficiency and with both mounts a well-planned rebellion. Heeding to the voices so eloquently depicted by the flashback scenes of Orishi incantations by men and women painted in white, as well as embracing the three dotted-sign on his chest — perhaps signifying the Mark of Cain? — he determines to slaughter his oppressors. In 48 hours he leads a growing company of black men through a number of slaveholding plantations freeing more men, and in leaving in their wake over 60 dead slaveholders. In a valiant and violent effort for freedom, Nat Turner commits the scores of soul-less brutes that claim to worship the same God he does on a bloody quick journey to meet their Maker. Woe unto you, white man! Woe is you slave master! For in Nat Turner’s futile rebellion has the good Lord still heard his cry and will yet avenge him.
Nat Turner is ultimately captured months after the second semi-successful revolt in the Americas — The Haitian Revolution of 1791 was the first — but not before many slaves are murdered in his stead. How fitting that in Jerusalem, Virginia, would be the venue Nat Turner dies a martyr’s death, bringing to mind his Savior’s own death at Calvary. Like Moses he’s ready for death on the banks of Canaan, which his family will eventually see — in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation would be signed by President Lincoln, setting all slaves henceforth free. Many believers and many more doubters witnessed his slow demise hanging from the rope, just as they did the “King of the Jews.” Almost giving up the ghost, Nat Turner takes his last breathes, and looks up, this time to see the angel of God — seemingly returning to the safety and security and salvation of his first love, The Messiah, who will awaken him at the last trump.
This monumental film should be displayed in schools across the country for youth to consider: one, supporting and celebrating excellent African-American arts that carry on tradition and history; two, how to be more compassionate and proactive to the progeny of a people that underwent, and continue to undergo, the mental and physical effects of structural racism and slavery — here I include, without excuse, Nate Parker’s youthful faults and “imbroglio”; three, how far God has brought black people that we should effectively be free in 2016 (albeit not so much in mind, and despite the New Jim Crow); four, that we should only will it to do that which God has called us to do — not an one iota more or less; five, how the nature of sin and the level of evil to which man has matured can make or break groups and individuals; six, the profound importance of nurturing the will to do good, despite the justified urge to pay back with evil; and finally, seven, the need for a Savior in the world today that can wipe away every tear and heal all wounds and promise us a better place than America could ever offer.
But did God forget His created black people? — far be it for Him. God did not intend for the Israelites to be enslaved by the Egyptians for 400 years, nor did he will it for African-Americans to be enslaved by white people for 400 years. Lest we forget, the prince of this world, D’Evil one, the god of wrath, in whom sin originated, and whose promptings many of the world have sought counsel, is the sole founder and instigator of the despotic practice, namely racism and slavery, as well as many other evils. God gave man freewill to choose and, tragically, from the beginning, the fallen angel troubled the first parents and the first son (Cain) to also fall — though the Lamb of God would redeem mankind. So we’ve been living under the vile curse of slavery and racism since. And unfortunately some of us, on the arbritary account of melanin content, have felt the pangs of these sins more than others.
Nat Turner’s faith in God at the end of the film attests to his spiritual fortitude more so than his physical victories. On the scaffold deck of death he rediscovers a God that accepts him yet they slay him — he regains true hope, not in hatchets and artillery but in the Mightiest Arsenal. And that’s what life is all about — Hope. Nate Parker leaves the viewer with a huge question to grapple with and, to each, find an answer to where seekest thou the hope of life? The God of Love or the god of wrath?
Alas, I find mine in the God of Love.