Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation (out on DVD in January) brings the story of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, to film for the first time. In addition to directing and co-writing the movie, Parker stars as Turner, alongside a cast that includes Gabrielle Union and Armie Hammer. The rebellion itself, which lasted 48 hours, doesn't happen until late in the film, and neither, really, does Nat Turner's development into a radical Christian insurrectionist. Rather than tell the story of Turner's self-radicalization, the community formation (that is, the actual birthing of a nation) involved in his preaching, or the attempt to organize a rebel force essentially after already starting a rebellion, a good part of the film focuses on Nat and life on the Turner plantation.
The movie includes fictionalizations meant to fit Turner's story into the clichéd screenwriting structure of a hero's journey, and to provide dramatic reference points that are supposed to serve as an additional impetus for the rebellion, beyond the quest for freedom. The most controversial of these fictionalizations are two rapes of slave women. While Turner's wife may have been raped, historians do not believe such an event sparked the rebellion. Parker's decision to include this in the script came under particular scrutiny because a woman levied rape allegations against Parker and his co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin, when they attended Penn State. She committed suicide in 2012.
A number of groups called for a boycott of the film. And despite acting in it, Union—a rape survivor—said she could not "sell it." Despite a paucity of Hollywood films taking black history seriously, this one performed poorly at the box office.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Birth of a Nation".