- The Birth of a NationA Roundtable
Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation (2016) is the second major motion picture focusing on slavery to be released since 2013 and part of the growing genre of films that have shifted the popular narrative of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. While historians of the nineteenth century have long understood the Lost Cause's problematic nature in defining the narrative of slavery and the Civil War era, popular history, especially that presented through the medium of film, has been slower to tackle this subject. Through the first half of the twentieth century, Hollywood films tended to glorify the war, and the realities of chattel slavery—the driving force behind secession—were downplayed. The miniseries Roots and the film Glory fought bravely against the imagery of the Lost Cause and paved the way for more recent films 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation, which challenge audiences' understandings of chattel slavery and the impact of that institution on American society and history.
Hollywood's interest in the Civil War era is not new, though a concerted effort to illuminate its truly complex nature of has emerged relatively recently. Films such as 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, The Free State of Jones, and The Birth of a Nation, in the broadest sense, challenge the popular narratives of the nineteenth century and in doing so expand our understanding of the period's nuances, including but not limited to the complicated relationships, identities, and beliefs that ultimately defined the lives of men and women, free and slave. The Birth of a Nation is the first feature-length film to focus on the events leading up to the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia; like the earlier 12 Years a Slave, it gives viewers an intimate look into the brutal realities of chattel slavery [End Page 56] in the American South and the heartbreaking desperation of the men and women forced to toil under the harshest of conditions for their masters' financial gain.
Turner's revolt was a defining moment in southern history and the history of slavery, for in its suddenness and brutality it reflected all that white slave owners feared: the armed insurrection of their property. Certainly, at its basic level, the institution of slavery must have been somewhat unsettling for southern whites, who often found themselves outnumbered in their homes by men and women forcefully kept in bondage. Indeed, as J. William Harris points out in his foundational study Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society, slave owners were acutely aware of their precarious situation. "Slavery," he writes, "created by its nature, the possibility of a slave revolt. The potential combination of fanatical outside agitators and black rebels seemed increasingly menacing during the antebellum period."1 Nat Turner's revolt in particular, Eugene Genovese notes "especially stood out as a 'cataclysm' and a 'fierce rebellion' … for the primary reason that it drew a considerable amount of white blood."2 Nate Parker's version of the event that reinforced the fears of white southerners (which carried over to the postwar period as a means of justifying the violent preservation of the race line) warrants historical analysis and contextualization; thus, in this edition of Civil War History we bring together scholars whose work focuses on this pivotal period in the history of American slavery to discuss the merits of the "Hollywoodification" of Nat Turner's (in)famous revolt.
Vernon Burton (VB) is Creativity Professor of Humanities, professor of history, sociology, and computer science at Clemson University. He is author of numerous books on nineteenth-century America, including In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (1985), The Age of Lincoln (2007), and Penn Center: A History Preserved (2014).
Kenneth S. Greenberg (KG) is Distinguished Professor of History at Suffolk University and has written extensively on the institution of slavery. His works include Masters and Statesmen: The Political Culture of American Slavery (1988), Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting and Gambling in the...