On Sunday, I went to see The Birth of a Nation, the dramatic period film about Nat Turner who led a group of slaves and free blacks in a revolt in Southampton County Virginia in 1831 that took the lives of nearly 60 white slave owners and their families. Turner’s story is one that few know about, including African-Americans, so it’s been exciting to know that his story has finally come to life on screen. What sent hype for the movie over the edge was its incredible record-shattering $17.5 million sale to Fox Searchlight at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s not only amazing that a Nat Turner film exists, it’s amazing HOW it was made. The Birth of a Nation is already a triumph of independent film. Nate Parker, who audiences previously knew for his roles in movies like The Great Debaters and Beyond the Lights, took an acting hiatus to devote his time completely to Nat Turner’s narrative — producing, writing, directing and starring in the film with only a third of the estimated budget. To achieve the critical success it did at its premiere is something most first-time filmmakers would hardly dare to dream. The movie is a true work of art and testament to what you can accomplish when you put your heart and soul into a project.
History and bells n’ whistles aside, there are several very important reasons to see the film. I haven’t read many opinion pieces about this, especially in the wake of its disappointing $7 million opening weekend, because most of them are off-hand and ignorantly critical. The film is sure to do decently at the box office overall, as it’s only been released for five days. And I trust that awards season will be kind to this work. But let’s address some ugly truths that movie-goers need to come to terms with, and de-bunk all the reasons why some have decided to protest this:
This is one of the emptiest arguments I’ve heard, which is why I’ve placed it first. Stop complaining about “slave movies” because that’s not a genre. Birth is a period drama. How many war films have you watched? Romantic comedies? Holiday movies? Movies where men go off to do something dangerous and the wives stand there saying “come back to me”? Superhero films? Holocaust? Gangster movies? Biopics? Westerns? Enough. This is history. This is American history, this is our history. These stories live and breathe. We will and should keep telling them. It’s insulting to say that films like this are “just another slave movie.” It dishonors the memory of the very ancestors you like to brag about. If you think a movie that chronicles life as a slave is “another slave movie” then you are contributing to the damaging ideology that insists black stories aren’t valuable. That stories of black bondage don’t matter. That you don’t wish to see, remember, commemorate, or study the atrocities our ancestors (black and white) lived with. And if you’re okay with doing that, with turning away from healing, then I won’t argue.
This is true. The film spends enough time with them for us to like them, for us to feel their sincerity and want to know more about their lives. Make no mistake: this film is about Nat Turner. It’s not about his mother or his wife, or his best field buddy, or the slaves that joined him. These are all valuable, interesting people, but this story is not about them. Does that mean it couldn’t have spent more time on these characters? Of course not. It would have added depth. This is a challenge to anyone writing a story about someone’s life, and like all artists know, it will be approached differently, just like the lives of MLK or the Queen have been depicted differently through time. The women are there, and they are a support and a catalyst to what Nat is doing. The fact that they aren’t the center of attention is not a flaw, but an artistic choice. Make a movie about Harriet or Sojourner and you’ll see those things. Oh but wait, you don’t wanna watch another slave film.
If this bothers you, I surely hope you have not watched any historically based film EVER. I hope you haven’t watched Ray, or Walk the Line, or Cadillac Records, or Red Tails, or Selma, or The Aviator, and so on. No film is 100% accurate, hence the words “based on.” Oftentimes, scenes and plot lines must be invented to account for unknown information, to condense a wide portion of a historical event, or simply to dramatize the protagonist’s life well enough to keep your attention. Nat Turner was married and had a child. He did admit to killing only one person. Little is known about his father except that he is believed to have escaped to freedom (which is loosely depicted in the film). He baptized a white man – this is also in the film. It’s been documented that a solar eclipse led Nat to his rebellion, and this is shown in the film. A few things are slightly altered: who Nat killed, the family structure of his owners, and how he was captured, the latter of which it would be nice to have see accurately, but it was intermingled in the film version in an equally effective way. Many reviews boast that rape was portrayed as the sole catalyst for his rebellion, however that is incorrect. The assaults on women are used to depict how heinous the environment was and help push Nat over the edge, but it’s a series of events, involving both women and men that give us a holistic on why Nat felt the need to rebel. The largest part of the film that is not historically based is one of the most emotional thematic elements: his travels preaching to other slaves for his owner’s profit. Any viewer can take issue with this if they like, but it is a very compelling way of building anticipation and sharing information. This is art, and the film is artful, narrative strengths and weaknesses aside.
You won’t. I can’t get more frank with you than that. While the rapes in Birth of a Nation are deeply moving, not one second of them is shown on camera. At all. The assaults that do happen are traumatic on the women, and in the case of Gabrielle Union’s scene, for the men too. And no she does not fall into his arms to console him as one review suggested. That is suggestive at best. If someone told you not to watch because there are brutal rape scenes, disregard this story. I can see how viewing the aftermath of an attack could be triggering for a survivor, and if those are reasons you wish to hold off on the movie, I deeply respect you.
Well, you know I saved the best-or should I say most complicated-for last. We live in a world where Nate Parker – tried and acquitted of rape – is called a rapist, and Donald Trump, a confessed sexual assault attacker in the middle of his own trial for rape, is considered “lewd.” That’s being black in America. And on this topic, one must absolutely talk about the implications of race and politics in how people are treating this film. Mainstream media went back and dug into Parker’s past about something that’s been out in the open for years. Black media did not do this throughout his acting career, instead singing his praises and writing reviews without knowing his past. Mainstream media, which likely never gave a second look at his past films (which were largely black stories) decided to delve into something that wasn’t even news now that he made a movie on slave rebellion. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but it’s quite interesting because most new directors aren’t treated as such. Anyone who’s googled or Wikied his name in the last couple years has seen it.
Then there’s the politics of Art vs. Artist. Can one separate a man or woman from her work? Should we separate the two? Should we hold artists with a certain moral code (because the last time I checked they are often considered a rowdy bunch)? If Parker had hypothetically made a flawless film – the best of all time – would it now be worthless because of a past allegation? If Parker’s past bothers us enough to no longer care about Nat Turner’s legacy, does that mean we hold the vessel over the story? What power does an acquittal have in our society today? We seem to live in a world where the moment rape is attached to a man’s name there is no redemption for him. And quite simply, all one needs to do is attach rapist to a name – no evidence, proof or legal support is needed to hang him by the gallows, especially if he is black and she is white. A justice system that we criticize for constantly locking up black men actually took the time to find this man innocent, and now we suddenly don’t believe it to be true. Public opinion has become more important than a fair justice system. Yet most of you who are yelling the loudest about finding him guilty in the public are the same people who berate others for cyber bullying and slander.
Black women decry the frustrating need to choose between their femininity and blackness: it’s a trying case of intersectionality that plagues us daily. While both identities are a source of a strength and pride, they are both crutches in a society that values men, Caucasians, and Caucasian men, above all else. At times there is room for these two identities to co-exist, and other times they bump heads, as they do here. Do I pick the accuser’s side because I am female? Do I pick the accused’s side because I am black? It is not a decision one should have to make, but we subconsciously make them as women of color every day. Black women have complained that they refuse and are tired of having to pick sides, but if you choose not to support the film because you think Nate Parker – a man with a clean criminal record – is or was a rapist, you have chosen a side. You have chosen a side that for centuries consisted of white women accusing black men, who end up locked up or publicly degraded for a crime they did not commit. You have chosen a form of racism.
While we are on the subject of the morality of our artists, if you choose to avoid Birth of a Nation because of Nate Parker, I hope you do not spend your money on anything related to: R. Kelly, Gucci Mane, Tupac, Jameis Winston, Ceelo Green, Woody Allen, Sean Kingston, and Marilyn Manson. All of these men either have a record related to sex or violent crimes, or were accused of such. Now, I don’t deny that what ultimately happened to the accuser is beyond disturbing. What Parker did was not moral (in my opinion), but it was not proven criminal, and that’s because most people don’t understand what blackout drunk is, especially in relation to consent. Losing your ability to create memories does not mean you were not a consenting or participatory party at a given time, even if intoxication made you engage in something you wouldn’t normally do. You should not jail someone (literally or figuratively) without proof, and people of color should know that more than anyone.