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Faith Reels: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ … our dark past

Faith Reels: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ … our dark past

by Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster


Nate Parker, director, star and co-writer of this new film has been in the news. The film has been affected by the controversy surrounding Parker and a colleague who were accused and tried for the 1999 rape of a college student at Penn State. Consequently, there have been calls for a boycott of the film. Some critics have refused to review the film, but we are reviewing it because we believe it’s an important film. Having said that, although this film is artfully done, it is still difficult to watch. Current events in our country are poignant reminders of the seeds of racism deeply sown into our national ethos. The film painfully shows an important part of American history.


Parker presents the realities of the life of a slave. The racial violence is horrifyingly brutal. Yet Nat, who is literate and believes himself to be prophetic, earns money for his master by preaching tolerance and obedience to slaves on other plantations. Nat believes he is called by God and is assured of his “special qualities” by family members throughout the film. Nat’s father tells his young son, “You’re a child of God. You got purpose. It’s in ya. The Lord put it there and there ain’t nobody can take it away.” That drives Nat to be a man of integrity and courage even as he is owned by another human being.


A compassionate man, who endured a life of slavery that caused him to witness and be the object of atrocities inflicted on him and other slaves eventually enlisted other slaves to join him in the 1831 slave rebellion in the region of Southampton County, VA, that resulted in the murder of white people including the Benjamin Turner family, who “owned” Nat, and his wife Cherry.

Nat was eventually caught, beaten and hanged. His view of angels as he takes his last breath hints at his possible mystical or prophetic calling.


Thirty years after the slave rebellion, at the time of the Civil War, The Atlantic published a detailed account of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. You can read it here:


Several times during this film we heard James Weldon Johnson’s words in the hymn, “Lift every voice and sing.”


Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;

sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

facing the rising sun

of our new day begun,

let us march on, till victory is won.




Bonnie Anderson is a very active lay leader in her parish, diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church. She is an experienced community organizer and lives in suburban Detroit. Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest in Baltimore, Maryland and a former broadcast news executive. But don’t expect only east coast urban perspectives here. As it turns out, they both grew up in Southern California.  They blog about films and faith at Faith Reels


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Michael Hartney

Notwithstanding all that is said above, and the injustice that has happened … this is a powerful film that white America should see.

Helen Kromm

There are several aspects of this that are left unsaid in the first paragraph describing the controversial nature of the film. Parker’s Colleague in the making of this production goes unnamed, nor is mention made that this colleague (Jean Celestin) was in fact convicted of sexual assault. That conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds that his attorney did not provide adequate representation. He would have been retried, but the prosecutor felt that is was impossible years later to gather together all of the original witnesses.

I think it’s also important to mention, at least in passing, a few of the particulars regarding the victim. She was a 4.0 university student, and by all accounts, appeared to have bright future ahead of her. That was true until this incident invaded her life. Eleven years after the trial, she was dead after ingesting over 200 pills.

I would invite anyone to draw their own conclusions about this case by reading the exhaustive research provided by the “Daily Beast”:

Be forewarned that it is a tough and graphic read.

I think another important consideration here is the time frame when all of this transpired. Had these events occurred now, and with what we know regarding what is and is not informed consent, and what has transpired in terms of legislation regarding consent, the trial results would have been different.

So I for one have no interest in a review of this film. There are activities and crimes that I believe preclude celebrity for those that engage in such activities and crimes.

And you have to ask, where does it stop? As very recent events seem to indicate, it doesn’t even stop in the pursuit of the White House. Some of us, many of us, and for whatever insane reason, feel an obligation to celebrate those that would denigrate and disparage women.

And now, at least to an extent, such celebration comes to the pages of an Episcopal publication.

David Allen

Here’s to hoping that you aren’t selective in your self-sensoring and encoragement of others to do the same. I hope that you turn the radio off when a Michael Jackson song comes on, not just the ones that he sings, but the ones that he wrote as well. And Woody Allen, etc., etc., etc.

Ann Fontaine

Wish this piece did not associate “dark” with bad.

James Byron

On the issue of the accusation: art exists separately from the artist (else we’d never be able to look at a Caravaggio); and in any case, Parker was acquitted.

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