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Book Review: Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty

Writing as “a historian who has devoted four decades to the study of Virginia” and an author striving to “do his best”, Richmond, Virginia scholar Jon Kukla—who has directed research and publishing at the Library of Virginia, authored history books and run Virginia’s Red Hill/Patrick Henry National Memorial—accounts for the one major American Revolutionary who “never held national office” in his biography Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (published today by Simon & Schuster).

Presuming an audience with serious interest in the Virginia lawyer, planter and American radical who defiantly proclaimed “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, Kukla immerses the reader in a dense, detailed and exhaustively factual biography. Neither exactly a straight chronological narrative nor a predominantly political philosophical reckoning, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty instead goes for completeness in providing the central facts of Patrick Henry’s career as an orator, thinker and founder of the American republic.

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is impressive. Do not, however, expect or look forward to a portrait of the whole man. Kukla emphasizes essential points of Patrick Henry’s remarkable life, career and achievements—most impressively, offering deeper or newer details on Henry’s thoughts, ideas and writings—and does not get into the personal life, such as children and marriage. Patches of Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty are dull, dry and laboriously overdone with non-essential facts, names and information. But if history, and, in particular, great mythical tales of American history, entices your intellect, most of the reading is page-turning.

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History earns my most intense​ readership and Jon Kukla’s meticulously researched volume, with over 100 pages of notes, acknowledgements and preface, brings newly disclosed documents and insights to this patriot’s role in the radical, grass-roots movement to break free from British statism, declare independence and create an American republic.

“[Patrick] Henry was of medium build and average height, with deep-set but piercing steel-blue eyes, a dark complexion, and strong features,” Kukla writes. “His face was described not as handsome but as ‘agreeable and full of intelligence and interest.” Henry once sported a bright red cape when elected to public office. Indeed, he became known for rampant individualism, which may explain why he does not typically get his historical due as an influential Founding Father. Absorbing and continuing threads include Patrick Henry’s abiding friendship with George Washington—Virginia’s first governor and America’s first president—despite the pair’s principled dispute over the Constitution.

Young Patrick Henry and his brothers had grown up hunting, fishing and exploring the countryside, Kukla notes, and his philosophy apparently formed relatively early in life. Virginian Henry, indulging himself in nature, studied and guided himself in contemplating books, arts and Western ideas. “After breaking his collarbone at the age of twelve,” the author writes, “Henry during his convalescence taught himself to play the flute, though only for his private enjoyment. He was also an excellent performer on the violin.” Henry, like Thomas Jefferson, “spent hours ‘lying with his back upon a bed’ reading Laurence Sterne’s popular and risque comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote or Daniel Defoe’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” Friends described Patrick Henry’s disposition as “benevolent, humane, mild, quiet, and thoughtful.”

As an adult, Patrick Henry did own slaves even as he denounced slavery, which he believed was detrimental to everyone, causing white workers to “despise honest physical labor”, and Kukla seeds the volume with a running and carefully integrated account of slavery. He does so as it relates to his subject. So, the reader is more likely to come away with an objective grasp of why early advocates for slavery’s abolition, such as Patrick Henry, failed to follow through. Among complicating factors are Haiti’s violent slave rebellion, which set the cause of abolitionism back, an inter-colonial slave trade and, not insignificantly, the looming War for Independence, which appears to have all but derailed serious consideration for abolition.

Patrick Henry emerges as a compelling man of principle. Henry taught himself the law, seeking guidance from an attorney whom he considered honest, who “won [Patrick Henry’s] admiration for his strict refusal to defend clients he thought were wrong.” Soon, Henry built a profitable legal practice, increasing his caseload from 176 in 1760 to 493 in 1763, according to Patrick Henry’s ledgers.

Yet his ability to make money was inextricably tied to the issue of the British government’s control of nearly every aspect of colonial lives and Henry’s lifelong pursuit of happiness fuels his activism for creating a society based on individual rights. When the British crown rejected the Two-Penny Act of 1758, which Henry considered a perfectly logical law, Henry echoed political philosopher John Locke, denouncing the British king’s disallowance by noting that a king who fails to protect his people “forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” After accounting for Henry’s formative three weeks in Williamsburg, where he witnessed Virginia’s first opposition, both public and private, to the government’s imposition of stamp duties on the colonies firsthand, Kukla takes on the facts and details of the Stamp Act of 1765, which, like ObamaCare, was concealed from the public and presented in the press as a fait accompli weeks after enactment, a tactic which would inform Patrick Henry’s later political methodology.

Henry’s blistering opposition to the Stamp Act forged his reputation as an American radical for liberty. In fact, Kukla reports that colonial newspapers reprinted versions of Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act resolutions during the summer of 1765, galvanizing resistance among the colonial population. The Massachusetts governor warned the British that Henry’s proposals were proving to be “an Alarm bell to the disaffected.”

And Henry, who celebrated Hugo Grotius and others as “illustrious writers” and benevolent spirits who “held up the torch of science to a benighted world,” took painstaking inventory of the toll each act of injustice took on himself and his fellow Virginians. Kukla writes that even Patrick Henry was shocked when the Stamp Act’s details came to light; Henry’s legal practice was subject to 40 government fees on every document, including wills, deeds, bills of sale, even college diplomas. The Stamp Act imposed taxes, too, on Virginia’s newspapers, almanacs, calendars, and pamphlets. A fellow attorney and Virginia burgess exclaimed: “Every kind of business transacted on paper is taxed!”

The Virginian fought the king’s tyranny with words, ideas—and oration. George Mason wrote that Henry was “the most powerful speaker I ever heard.” Mason attested that “[e]very word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues.” Congressman Silas Deane gushed: “Patrick Henry is the compleatest Speaker I ever heard…but in a Letter I can give You no Idea of the Music of his voice, or the highwrought, yet Natural elegance of his stile.”

Patrick Henry’s oratorical style, like his savvy political, business and intellectual sense, was bred by thoughtful and methodical study of facts, context and analysis of what making a nation based on individual rights would necessitate, mean and entail. While visiting Philadelphia, Patrick Henry roamed bookstores, purchasing Thomas Leland’s edition of The Orations of Demosthenes on Occasions of Public Deliberation (London, 1763), one of many books about oratory Kukla writes that Henry used to improve his public speaking. The book bears Henry’s printed bookplate, signature, and his handwritten notation: Philadelphia 1774. But Kukla observes that Henry’s copy also contains a dog-eared corner of a page at this passage of particular interest to Virginia’s great orator: “When we take up arms against the Barbarian,” Demosthenes proclaimed about 354 BC, “we take them up for our country, for our lives, for our customs, for our liberty, and all such sacred rights.”

Henry “electrified the whole house”, Kukla writes, recapturing Henry’s legendary lines delivered on Tuesday, September 6, 1774, according to delegates’ notes of the congressional debates, that “The Distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” Kukla adds that “Patrick Henry’s oratorical skills were impressive, of course, but the delegates placed greater weight on his ideas.” Years later, John Adams told Jefferson that, in that Congress of 1774, “there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared to me sensible of…the Pinnacle on which he stood, and had candour and courage enough to acknowledge it.”

With a chosen pen name Scipio—”a pseudonym honoring the Roman patriot and general praised by Cicero as an exemplary orator and leader”—Partick Henry railed against Britain’s “bloody massacre” at Boston, reminding the king that “the breath of a tyrant blasts and poisons every thing, changes blessings and plenty into curses and misery, great cities into gloomy solitudes, and their rich citizens into beggars and vagabonds.”

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Filling Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty with such stirring words, usually grounding the speeches, excerpts and moments in their proper context, Kukla lays Patrick Henry’s life and ascent bare, demonstrating that the brilliant agitator for an American revolution and nation based on man’s rights was often biting and brave. That he once “sneered” to appeasers: “Shall we try “humble supplication”? That he may have saved the Midwest from British rule during the American Revolution with a band of elite forces, battled malaria and wrote his will entirely in his own hand. That believer Patrick Henry had concerns about the growing influence of deism and was not strictly for separating religion and state. That President Washington twice considered appointing him to the Supreme Court and once to succeed James Monroe as ambassador to France. That he wrote that he “detests” paper money. That Henry had 17 children and nearly 80 slaves when he died of stomach cancer at the age of 63.

Or that the text of Patrick Henry’s 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act were a starting point of the American Revolution.

But Kukla also recounts, sometimes too generally or, conversely, with too much detail, that Patrick Henry, who was also a military colonel in the Revolutionary War, was intensely interested in and had a decent understanding of military history and strategy. Col. Henry created Virginia’s navy and, Kukla notes: “By the end of the Revolution, the legacy of Patrick Henry’s navy comprised two major shipyards and a dozen smaller ones as well as scores of warships—brigs and brigantines, schooners and pilot boats, and cruisers and row galleys—all manned by seven hundred officers, sailors and marines.”

To this end, Henry was loved by his enlisted men, who at one point threatened to quit and refused to serve under any other commander. But what also comes through in Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is that Patrick Henry was a deep and serious thinker, not merely a man of high ideals, inspiring speeches and decisive action, who was capable of life-affirming insight and introspection. For instance, Henry held that “[m]aturity grew not from “uninterrupted tranquility” but from hardships that “compel an exertion of mental power…Adversity toughens manhood—and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempted from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.”

Surmount them Patrick Henry apparently, did, too, as his wife Sarah, his “beloved companion”, “lost her reason” and showed signs of mental instability, dying in early 1775. Henry put his Scotchtown plantation up for sale in August of 1777. He sold it the following year for “eight times the purchase price, considerably advancing his fortune.”

Patrick Henry, whom Ayn Rand named a Midwestern university after in her epic novel of ideas, Atlas Shrugged, uttered his most famous line on March 20, 1775. Jon Kukla alludes to it in the title of his book’s Chapter 14: Liberty or Death: “When at last Henry took the floor, eyewitnesses describe him as starting “calmly,” as was his practice…Henry warned that his opinions were “very opposite to theirs.” …Henry wanted Virginians to face the whole truth, acknowledge the worst, and provide for it. Henry’s speech, as one distinguished historian observed, “transformed resistance into revolution.”

How exactly comes into sharp focus as Kukla recaptures Henry’s glorious American moment:

There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.” When Henry paused, murmurs of “Peace! Peace!” emanated from the pews where some of his timid colleagues sat, punctuating the dramatic moment and plodding one of history’s greatest orators toward the culmination of his most famous speech. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Henry answered. echoing the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, “but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” he exclaimed, affirming once again Virginia’s policy of steadfast unanimity with the other colonies. “Why stand we here idle?” “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He paused again, lifted his eyes and hands toward heaven and prayed, “Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take, but as for me…give me liberty, or give me death!” Then as his voice echoed through the church and his audience watched in stunned silence, Henry raised an ivory letter opener as if it were a dagger and plunged it toward his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato. The church fell silent. “Men looked beside themselves,” one listener recalled. Another listener, standing outside a window after failing to find a seat inside, felt overwhelmed by Henry’s oratory. “Let me be buried at this spot,” exclaimed Edward Carrington, the younger brother of a Charlotte County delegate.”

Kukla notes that the British redcoats moved to disarm colonists at Concord and Lexington three weeks later, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the shot heard ’round the world, setting off the fireworks that sparked an American Revolution.

For his part, Patrick Henry, convinced that the Constitution would result in a consolidated government that, when it proved oppressive to Virginians, could not be altered, opposed ratifying the Constitution. He opposed We the People, which he held was presumptuous, insisting that We the states was the proper phrase. “The chief aim of government, he insisted, was neither the promotion of trade nor imperial visions of becoming “a great and powerful people” but the protection of personal liberties. “Liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” But this does not mean that Henry was an advocate of states’ rights as that term is widely understood. He wrote that “the dissolution of the Union is most abhorrent to my mind. The first thing I have at heart is American liberty: the second thing is American union.”

Nearing conclusion, Kukla observes that Patrick Henry warned that “The Constitution squints toward monarchy” and that he cautioned that “Your president may easily become king,” asking: “What will then become of you and your rights?”

In the chapter Last Call, Kukla largely lets the great American hero Patrick Henry have the floor, recalling his words: “If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves intolerably oppressed, my answer is ready—overturn the government. But … wait at least until some infringement is made upon your rights that cannot otherwise be redressed; for … you may bid adieu forever to representative government.”

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty ​is an excellent and important biography of the patriot Patrick Henry—who inspired the American to rational action for individual rights in this land’s darkest hours—and wrote:

Reader! whoever thou art, remember this,

and in thy Sphere, practice Virtue thyself,

and encourage it in others.

P. HENRY

Southern California Stories

I’m working on private writing assignments and creating some summer lessons but I’ve gathered a few links to recent Southern California-themed articles for those who might be interested and may have missed reading them online or in the newspaper. My exclusive interview with the Ayn Rand Institute’s new CEO, Jim Brown, who talked with me at his Irvine office about management, including what he’s learned from serving in the United States Air Force, was published in the Los Angeles Times Orange County edition; you can read it here. Brown, whom I think is planning to attend and address next month’s OCON in Pittsburgh, names his favorite Ayn Rand lecture and works by longtime Orange County resident and ARI founder Leonard Peikoff. Brown also identifies what he considers the institute’s greatest success.

The head of another Southern California institute, the newly formed Institute for the Study of Los Angeles (ISLA), recently sat down with me at the host campus quad at Occidental College for a wide-ranging interview about plans for the future. Professor Jeremiah Axelrod discussed his family’s unique migration to LA from Alabama, restrictive covenants and the top places to visit in LA in my exclusive new piece about his thoughts and interesting historical facts about the region. The article, which runs this week, is available to read here.

One sordid chapter in LA history is the serial crimes by the Hillside Stranglers, which was integral to the downfall of one of the city’s first prominent shopping malls. I recently profiled Eagle Rock Plaza, which has since been nicknamed the Mall of Manila but was once a popular attraction for events featuring a teen idol, Olympic gold medalist and a movie starlet. Tenants over the years included Howard Johnson’s, May Company, The Wherehouse, See’s Candies, Bob’s Big Boy, Baskin-Robbins and Vroman’s Bookstore. Before the mall opened, local LA residents were so excited, they demanded to have “Eagle Rock” put in its name and the city of Glendale was so nervous about losing tax revenue to the competition that the local government mandated free downtown parking — before Eagle Rock Plaza even opened. But when two serial rapists and murderers showed up, posing as policemen, stalking a bus stop by the shopping center and picking up their youngest victims there, business slowed. Read the shopping center story here.

Strictly Occidental

While doing research for assignments related to a college in Los Angeles, I wanted to know the origin of the term ‘occidental’. I knew from my Oxford English Dictionary that the word means that which relates to the countries of the West.

So I asked Paul Anthony Jones, author of etymological guides and The Accidental Dictionary in the United Kingdom and creator of the language website Haggard Hawks. Kindly, he answered by e-mail, starting with a comparison of the words oriental and occidental, which he wrote has to do with the sun: “[E]tymologically orient comes from the Latin for ‘rise’ or ‘begin’, occident from the Latin for ‘set’ (or ‘fall down’). It’s the association between the location of rising and setting sun that permanently attached the words to the east and west…That gives the words some interesting and quite unexpected cousins. Orient is related to abort and origin, and probably even orchestra somewhere along the line. Occident, in the sense of a falling or setting, is related to incidents and coincidences, accidents, and deciduous trees, as well as all the words that end –cide, like patricide, fungicide and homicide.”

This word, occidental, is also the name of a small, private college in northeastern Los Angeles.

Alan Bliss memorializes mass murder victims of 9/11. Photo courtesy of JSBProductions

Alan Bliss memorializes mass murder victims of 9/11. Photo courtesy of JSBProductions

Occidental College is where an attack on a U.S. flag memorial was waged in three waves on this year’s 15th anniversary of the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attack on the United States. Alan Bliss, the sophomore pictured here who coordinated the besieged free speech exercise, tells me that he’s granting Occidental College the benefit of the doubt in protecting campus free speech despite the evidence to the contrary. The young Texan spoke with me in an exclusive interview on campus last fall. Read the story of his simple free speech exercise, its assault and destruction and the college’s appeasing response in my article here.

Occidental College is located in LA’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, where a wine lounge recently hosted a pair of Occidental professors for an enjoyable lesson on the Greek god Dionysus (read the article here), in which they discussed Plato, Aristotle, sparagmos, Alexander the Great, and why Dionysus is best regarded as more complex than the god of wine. The club’s lounge is owned by an Occidental graduate who chooses to host art exhibits, readings and lectures and other exercises of free speech at his Colorado Wine Company, located on Colorado Boulevard, a few miles from the hillside college.

As I ponder the word occidental as emanating from the setting sun and meaning that which pertains to the West, I must note that the college which sustained, and arguably minimizes, a siege against the freedom of speech, is where Barack Obama, the nation’s 44th president, Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Ben Affleck and director Terry Gilliam (Brazil) once studied. That this credible institution of higher education now claims (as a college spokesman told me for this article) that the school “doesn’t have the resources” to protect a student’s exercise of free speech—and, instead, seeks to coddle and appease its attackers—underscores the precarious state of the First Amendment.

Today, the 45th president vowed to strip citizenship of or imprison anyone exercising the right to free expression by burning a flag. More than before, the absolute right to express oneself, whether by burning or planting a flag, is crucial to the future of the West.


Related Links

Occidental Professors Lecture on Ancient Greece by Scott Holleran

Occidental College Responds to 9/11 Assault on Freedom of Speech by Scott Holleran

Movie Review: Jackie

Dissecting the wife of the first modern celebrity president to become martyred through assassination—President Kennedy—is the aim of leading actress Natalie Portman’s tragic horror movie, Jackie. A pretentious, arduous fictionalization it is, too. Jackie is as grisly as a horror movie and as maudlin as a Tennessee Williams play.

No one can accuse writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larrain of romanticizing the Kennedys, though the president’s widow as the film’s subject garners some degree of sympathy. This, too, may depend on one’s take on the grief-stricken housewife with no apparent passion for anything except perhaps vanity, proximity to the opposite sex and prestige by the estimates of others. This may have been part of the intended point of Jackie, which is meant to be unnerving and is often merely uninteresting.

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Beginning with a black screen, droning sounds and scattered shots of glimpses of the film’s three main focal points—the November 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas, a 1961 First Lady’s televised tour of the White House and a post-assassination meeting at the Kennedys’ property in Massachusetts—Jackie delves into dark moments. Given that it’s one of the most iconic, photographed presidencies, it’s hard not to want to watch what’s happening on screen, if for no other reason to match it up with famous pictures.

“I will be editing this conversation in case I don’t say exactly what I mean,” the First Lady tells an interviewer after the assassination in the movie’s framing device. In flashbacks to the deadly motorcade, hospital, Air Force One and the White House, the grieving widow’s lament comes in three arcs; before, during and after Dallas. It plays as a psychodrama, as Portman’s version of Jacqueline Kennedy sucks cigarettes, pops pills, melts down and confides, breathlessly wandering halls and rooms in her tidy little outfits like a battery-operated doll gone glitchy.

Jackie Kennedy was real and the movie that bears her name, enamored with her grief, hints at and shows nothing of what came before or after her White House Kennedy years, so there’s nothing about her Republican politics, interest in publishing or even much about what attracted her to her Catholic husband (whose presence in the movie is relegated to a few glimpses and a halting speech). The whole movie is overstyled, like a reality cable show’s recreation, focusing on the victim’s personality more than on pivot points in depicted events that define or recur over a lifetime (like The Queen, Lincoln or The Iron Lady). Jackie is moody, twitchy and awfully derivative. I do not think depicting a woman at her worst for nearly 90 consecutive minutes is inherently brilliant, however.

Jackie amounts to a re-enactment based on morbid curiosity. From scene to scene, certain tidbits emerge, from Mrs. Kennedy’s defense of guiding the White House tour, in which she finds “history, identity and beauty” in material possessions and points out that she funded restoration of the White House entirely through private donations to President Lincoln’s funeral as the impetus for her husband’s. The impressions soon fade amid more pill-popping than Valley of the Dolls, a distracting score, chain-smoking and a brutal portrayal of a shallow, unstable woman. “I used to make them smile,” she says to a priest (John Hurt, V for Vendetta) after asking what men will think of her now.

Add scenes with the kids and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) as the closest Jackie has to villains other than the grieving widow herself and her late husband, whose flaws are suggested, never named. As Mrs. John Kennedy, Portman is affected, overly mannered and sincere. As a journalist, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) is flat, though this may be the way the role is written and it’s hard to tell because the journalist behaves less as a journalist and more as a sycophant.

For all the pageantry and re-enactment, the majesty Jackie apparently believes it exhibits only holds if you think celebrity has majesty (it doesn’t), if only for one brief shining moment. Jackie feels, however, like one, long gauzy eternity, at once both fawning and cruel to the woman who later made a career for herself independent of men. When the priest to whom Jackie Kennedy confides finally tells her that one can’t ever really know anything, anyway, and that, upon realizing this truth, most people accept it as true, kill themselves or stop seeking answers, I knew in that instant that this is what Jackie is really made to say. Sadly, it’s all that Jackie‘s made to say.

Movie Review: The Birth of a Nation (2016)

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” This Thomas Jefferson quotation from his Notes on the State of Virginia, which also appears on my favorite memorial in Washington, D.C., the Jefferson Memorial, prefaces and predisposes Nate Parker’s provocative movie about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

That the young filmmaker, whose picture was bought at a film festival by Fox Searchlight with great expectations only to be downgraded by recent disclosures about Parker’s past, casts the historic rebellion as God’s vengeance—religionists and atheists alike should note that Nat Turner’s God is vengeful—undercuts the true nature and power of Nat Turner’s story. The Birth of a Nation makes everything seem too pat.

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The two-hour film lacks the impact its topic, a preacher slave’s rebellion, deserves, leaving it well short of achieving the promise implied by its title. That said, Parker’s movie raises questions, provokes thoughts and contains powerful performances and images and hair-raising scenes.

Framed by an African mythology of wisdom, vision and leadership set by a tribal chief, screenwriter and director Parker’s story of the antebellum South begins in earnest with frolicking children named Turner—one slave child, one slavemaster’s child—in what becomes, or could have more fully become, a fascinating plot spiral about how slavery rots the life of both slave and slavemaster. The boys grow into Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and Nat Turner (Nate Parker). The white male goes from Nat’s childhood friend to defender while slowly turning to alcohol for comfort as the reality of owning his friend sets in. The black male goes from Samuel’s childhood friend and favored servant to rebel leader while slowly turning to religion for justifying his righteous wrath.

Both boys begin as innocents. Both become wrecked by slavery. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t dramatize every facet of their doomed relationship let alone do so in universal terms of its essential meaning, but it is there even if muted in power. It is one of many missed opportunities in this otherwise occasionally searing film, which is safe and uneven.

For example, the romance Nat Turner develops with his future wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King, ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder) follows predictable turns, lines and scenes. Yet when she’s attacked later in the film, an unseen depth of commitment is presumed to serve as a catalyst for full-scale revolt. Their relationship is more abbreviated than demonstrated, going from a kind of rescue to rehabilitation thanks to Nat Turner’s knowing, loving mother (Aunjanue Ellis, For Colored Girls) to a kind of gentleness that feels contrived as Parker’s performance veers from saccharine to seething. Cherry and Nat as a couple never go deep and take root.

This is an ongoing problem in The Birth of a Nation, which is sufficiently tense, gruesome and gripping given its subject matter. Important scenes have either been cut or not filmed and in either case there are gaps of what the audience should be seeing on screen. Some of what’s left off screen includes the murder of babies, which is part of Nat Turner’s legacy, and other heinous acts such as sexual assault. Smaller details, too, however, are left out of the movie. Among these are how Nat Turner, who was literate, used his knowledge to formulate his plan for an uprising as a means of leading his fellow slaves to freedom.

Surprisingly, and disappointingly, there is not a single scene of serious, point by point plotting of the rebellion. Instead, there are constant and overwrought scenic references to the landscape and its orientation to sunlight, which dovetails to what I take as Parker’s theme, with co-screenwriter Jean McGianni Celestin, for The Birth of a Nation: mass murdering slave as God’s prophet. Given Parker’s selective recreation of the historic insurrection, with its omission of deeper analysis of Turner’s motives other than his faith in God, the Bible and religion, and certainly he appears to have been a religious zealot, this is the meaning of the motion picture, which treats his rising from a whipping as God’s will.

Why Nat Turner chose to believe in God after he acquired the ability to read is as left undone as how he learned to ride a horse or master the details of planning a regional rebellion. The Birth of a Nation deals with the injustice of slavery in fragments of fast-cutting scenes, often half-shown while in progress, with Jackie Earle Haley as his most spine-chilling villain since his role as a sexual deviant in Little Children and Roger Guenveur Smith (Chi-Raq, Malcolm X) as a house slave who opposes the rebellion.

The style has the effect of leaving the most pressing questions, facts and details of the rebellion out of the picture. Slavery and Civil War-themed pictures such as Amistad, Lincoln, Glory and 12 Years a Slave, which are outstanding movies, laboriously yet deftly and often brilliantly dramatize key parts of history in terms of essentials. Escape from Sobibor put planning a slave rebellion at the center of the film, so it’s possible to capture the howling hurt and anger of oppression and the cold, hard facts of rebellion in cohesion. Here, adding drone-type shots of lingering sunsets and Nina Simone songs to the soundtrack comes at the expense of character development. Gabrielle Union’s character, for instance, is a pretty but wordless character who smiles and dances before her downfall.

This movie about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion fills its frames with harrowing images of acts of evil and acts of retribution. Set in Southampton, Virginia, and filmed in Savannah, Georgia, the South comes off as a miserable, rotten and unhappy place of muggy swamps, cotton fields and buzzing insects with drunken, lazy and sadistic white men lording over enslaved Africans and I think this much is true. Intentionally or not, Nate Parker depicts the South’s misery as a byproduct of slavery’s total failure in every sense including as an engine for sustained economic production and it’s clear that it’s not at all an example of capitalism, as has been claimed. An outstanding performance by Esther Scott as Nana, Nat Turner’s grandmother, adds to the story.

But in leaving out certain facts, centrally details of the rebellion, The Birth of a Nation suggests that this young slave, who freed himself and whose life ought to be studied with other freed slaves such as Solomon Northrup and Frederick Douglass, was fundamentally a man of faith with only an impulse to take vengeance as a vessel of a supernatural being. And, Nate Parker’s movie implies, to enter an afterlife and become a martyr. This might be true, though I doubt it. I suspect that the truth is mixed and that Nat Turner may have been motivated by secular thoughts, too.

The Birth of a Nation presents horrifying fragments in pictures that float but do not tether disturbing questions about good and evil and the confusing, death-inducing mixture of both. It simply depicts that Nat Turner acted on faith—obeying a religious text commanding that the enslaved who believes he is a messenger of God act without mercy—to go forth and slaughter a few of his oppressors and mostly the innocent in proximity. Then The Birth of a Nation leaves it at that, trivializing an influential and horrifying act of rebellion and reducing it, in today’s parlance, to “so, this happened”, brushing aside exactly what, how and why.