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Milwaukee Critic: 'The Birth of a Nation' A 'Great Achievement' for Independent Filmmaking

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Nate Parker produced, co-wrote, directed and stars in "The Birth of a Nation."

There are countless films about the Civil War. From Gangs of New York to Lincoln to Glory, our nation’s bloodiest war continues to offer plenty of stories to tell.

A lesser known story happened decades before the war began. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831, lasted barely 48 hours but resulted in the death of many white plantation families and slaves across the county. It was also decisive moment in setting the stage for the future war between the states, sparking a national conversation about slavery and bolstering the nascent abolitionist movement.

The film The Birth of a Nation by Nate Parker opens Friday and tells the story of Nat Turner up to the time of the rebellion.

"It was probably, depending how you measure it, the biggest slave revolt in the United States. And the history questions about this movie are pretty interesting because there is artistic license here," says film contributor and Shepherd Express arts & entertainment editor Dave Luhrssen.

While Luhrssen notes that while the film does not show the full extent of the slave rebellion, such as the killings of not just white male plantation owners, but also white women and children, he says it is a significant contribution to diverse filmmaking.

"Birth of a Nation is noteworthy as part of what is a growing trend of black stories populated by a black cast and in some cases directed by black people," says Luhrssen.

While most of independent filmmaking centers around relationship dramas, Luhrssen finds it refreshing and hopeful that a film such as this one has raised the bar. The Birth of a Nation had great success when it opened at the Sundance Film Festival last January and sold to Fox Searchlight for over $17 millions - the highest bid any film has ever received at Sundance.

"I think it's a great achievement and it's a sign that indie filmmaking in America can take on bigger topics than it often does," he notes.

The original Birth of a Nation, made in 1915 by D.W. Griffith, portrays the aftermath of the Civil War and is filled with "crude racism" and "sub-human" portrayals of black characters. Historically, it was cinematically ground breaking in terms of technique and suspense building in filmmaking, but it also had the disastrous effect of inspiring the re-birth of the Klu Klux Klan.

Credit Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight Pictures

"Nate Parker is directly addressing this legacy," says Luhrssen. "He is essentially trying to set the message of the original Birth of a Nation on its head by showing the other side of this."

Parker's film has not only reintroduced America to Nat Turner's legacy, but it also provided the platform for rape charges made against Parker in college to resurface. The scandal has followed Parker to every press event and even has some people boycotting the movie altogether.

Luhrssen believes that viewers should look past the personal lives of artists. "I have no way of knowing the guilt or innocence of Nate Parker in this. But even assuming the worst, I think we need to look at the work he has done as a filmmaker and not allow anything in his personal life to eclipse that."

Luhrssen notes that the movie uncovers long standing issues such as racism, the treatment of African Americans throughout history, protests and the use of violence. "It is a brutal movie to watch in some ways, but well worth watching because it does do a very good job of illuminating many situations that not just happened 150 years ago, but are still effecting attitudes in our society today," he says.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
David Luhrssen is arts and entertainment editor of the Shepherd Express, co-founder of the Milwaukee International Film Festival and co-author of A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890. He is the winner of the Pace Setter Award for contributions to Milwaukee's film community from the Milwaukee Independent Film Society. David Luhrssen has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and Milwaukee Area Technical College.