CHICAGO — R-rated films typically aren't known for their spiritual themes, sermons and biblical references. There is the rare exception — "The Passion of the Christ" comes to mind — but in most cases R-rated movies carry content that most Christians simply would rather avoid.
This weekend, another exception — "The Birth of a Nation" (R) — hits theaters, telling the true story of Nat Turner, the slave/preacher who shared the Good News of Scripture to his fellow slaves and anyone who would listen, and who felt led by God in 1831 to lead a violent revolt against plantation owners in Virginia that led to his death.
Not since "The Passion" has an R-rated movie contained so much Christian content in a positive light. In fact, it's not hyperbole to say that "The Birth of a Nation," which was directed by and stars Nate Parker, includes more faith-based and biblical content than 90 percent of faith-based films, not to mention many Sunday morning sermons I've heard during my life.
This does not mean, though, that "The Birth of a Nation" is a film for everyone. It is very violent, contains some language and also has a very brief nude scene (details below).
But for Christians who don't mind the content issues, Parker's first film as a director is incredible, shedding light on someone many consider a hero of history while also raising moral questions that the slaves themselves were facing. It's impossible to watch "The Birth of a Nation" without concluding that Christianity itself was essential to ending slavery, even if it took several more decades. All total, 60 white people died during the revolt, and about 200 black people were killed in retaliation.
So, is the movie family-friendly? Let's take a look …
The film begins with an on-screen quote from Thomas Jefferson about God judging America for slavery, and the spiritual content is prevalent throughout. Nat, as a boy, is taught to read by reading the Bible (the "best book ever written," he is told). He then reads Scripture publicly in church. As an adult, he becomes a preacher, and we hear his sermons often. We also see him baptize someone (a white man).
In one critical scene, he engages in a heated debate with a white minister over whether Scripture supports slavery (for that, he receives lashes on the back). The other slaves begin to see him as someone chosen by God to free them, and he himself thinks he is doing a great deed in the line of David, Gideon, Joshua and Samson.
Turner's violent rebellion was controversial at the time — even among slaves — and the film does a nice job in presenting the two sides and their moral arguments.
The Birth of a Nation is not for those who are squeamish about violence or blood. In one horrific scene, we see slaves who are tied up with their hands over their heads, as a plantation owner literally breaks their teeth with a hammer-like object as punishment for not eating. Later, Nat's wife, Cherry, is beaten by three white men. We don't see that take place, but we do see her swollen face. The violent uprising is quite bloody, mostly because the slaves used sharp objects instead of firearms so as to maintain secrecy. (We see, for example, a knife driven into a man's throat, as well a man briefly holding a plantation owner's head following a beheading.) Slaves hanging on nooses are also seen.
The N-word is prevalent, and the film contains about 27 coarse words (more details below).
Finally, the movie opens with a brief scene of tribal nudity. The film also includes a post-wedding scene where Nat and his wife are nude from the waste up, facing one other and holding hands. We see them from the side. There is no kissing or hugging.
Thumbs up … or down?
Parker is phenomenal in his role as Turner. I would have enjoyed "The Birth of a Nation" more if there was a bit less violence and language and no nudity, but it nevertheless remains one of the best films of the year.
The verdict: Family-Friendly?
Ratings are a quirky thing. "The Birth of a Nation" contains less language than many PG-13 films — and the same amount of sexuality as some of those films too. But the violence puts it into the "R" category, and deservedly so.
This one is definitely not for children, and families will have different opinions as to whether it's OK for teens. But if you choose not to see it, it's definitely worth watching through a filtering service (ClearPlay or VidAngel) when it is released for home viewing.
Discussion questions for families
"The Birth of a Nation" raises tons of issues. Among them: What Bible verses did plantation owners use to defend slavery? What verses did Nat use? How would you respond to someone who argued that Scripture supports slavery? Was the violent rebellion justified? When is violence biblically permissible in self-defense?
Is Nat Turner a hero?
Entertainment rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 2 out of 5 stars.
"The Birth of a Nation" is rated R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.
Language: 27. N-word (14), GD (5), he-- (3), bi--h (1), s--t (2), ba----d (1), d--n (1).