Birth of a Nation: What Nate Parker’s Controversial Nat Turner History and His Own Offer America
By Stephane Dunn | @DrStephaneDunn | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Saturday, August 27, 2016.
This is not the review of Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation that I was planning to offer right after seeing the Sundance Festival history making film several months ago. That was before the good news surrounding Birth of a Nation had a competing storyline in its director’s past coming back to haunt him. The documented account of Parkers Penn State College rape case is readily accessible with a click. So are the headlines about Birth now being a “tainted” product. However, the rush to forecast the death of a promising film that deserves to be seen should provoke a deeper question: How can we celebrate Nate Parker’s dramatization of Nat Turner’s history while grappling with Parker’s?
I saw the film months ago in an intimate setting in an Atlanta theatre with a deeply emotional crowd. We were all moved. I sat in my seat bursting with pride and relief as the credits rolled. Like a lot of folk for whom Nat Turner is a sacred, yet unjustly neglected, historical figure, I had hoped for a major motion picture about him but feared for the outcome all the same. After all, white society in 1831 deemed Turner a crazy ‘nigger’ who terrorized the white Southampton Virginia community when he and nearly seventy-five other enslaved comrades killed between fifty-five and sixty-five whites.
While many mainstream historians acknowledge that black enslavement spurred Turner’s actions, they nonetheless contend that Turner engaged in unjustifiable murder. In sharp contrast, many black people, including my family and folk I grew up with and went to college and graduate school with, revered Turner as a legend who inspired John Brown, as a warrior for black liberation, and, to paraphrase Ossie Davis, as our shining black manhood long before the rise of Malcolm X.
Parker’s Birth of a Nation – brilliantly titled to signify on the racist history D.W Griffith spins in his troubled 1915 masterpiece, Birth of a Nation - made history at Sundance when it became the highest selling film ever previewed there and won the grand jury prize and the audience award. Now the rape case involving Parker and his college roommate, and Birth co-writer Jean Celestin, when they were wrestling students at Penn, is taking center stage, overshadowing Parker’s remarkable directorial debut. It is not that the charges against Parker – and the conviction of Celestin, before an appeal and a second trial being dismissed because the accuser opted not to testify – were a secret until now. But his bigger fame has brought far more intense public scrutiny.
The film’s distributor Fox Searchlight reportedly knew his past history. Obviously no director or public figure, including Parker, can be spared rigorous critique and interrogation, no matter their race, gender or cultural privilege. Still, film directors like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have enjoyed enormous success despite the taint of their morally vexing behavior with women. Other artists have endured in the public eye despite behavior such as domestic violence. How would the legendary Charlie Chaplin, with his headlining propensity for turbulent affairs, and marriages to sixteen-year old girls, have fared had twenty-four-hour news and social media existed in the 1920s through 1940s?
Parker’s treatment of Turner’s controversial history, and his own volatile past, offer the opportunity to wade into difficult, ugly, psychically disturbing territory bounded by a double taboo. Birth of a Nation is a brave, beautiful effort. It honors the Turner that I and so many have dared to claim as the real Turner, real to us, that is, in the meaning of his fight against the inhumanity of slavery. Parker manages several layers that make the film a worthy effort, starting, simply enough, with the point of view. Hollywood films about American slavery or set in the antebellum period have too often highlighted white agency and proclaimed white heroism. They have all too rarely amplified the voices, and privileged the gaze of black characters. Parker embraces the black gaze and speaks and looks from Turner’s point of view. He shows the sensitivity of a director who not only appreciates the weight of the sacred history he’s retelling, but who personally regards it as perhaps the most important story he’ll ever tell. Birth does that something rare: it takes a black figure at his word and narrates events within his moral trajectory.
The revolt in Birth is not treated as a mad spree or a mindless, bloodthirsty quest. Turner saw himself as led by God, through a series of intense and increasingly vivid visions, to take up arms against the evil of enslavement. If this meant the shedding of white blood too, that had to be accepted as part of the divine plan for black freedom and redemption. His visions reveal the evolution of his consciousness about the inherent spiritual wrongness of slavery.
Though it is not achieved without some narrative roughness, Parker also invokes ancestral linkages to the enslaved black community. He also showcases those ancestral ties as the roots of Turner’s worldview and spirituality. It harkens back to Julie Dash’s aesthetic and visual strategy in her pioneering film, Daughters of the Dust where she reclaims and reiterates African ancestral ties to the present. Parker thus evokes Nat’s visions and the evolution of his calling by deploying the symbolism and abstraction that contemporary Hollywood filmmaking frowns on, especially when it emerges in a black film. Parker reveals another essential layer of Birth in his treatment of the black women in Turner’s life, most notably his grandmother, mother, and wife. No, black enslaved women do not altogether escape marginalization in the actual development, and execution of the revolt; their abuses by whites stir up, and strike at, the indignity and manhood of their men, making them activators of the rebellion, a common role in black male oriented stories about the black freedom struggle. Nevertheless, Birth makes an effort to humanize these women as not merely passive emotional anchors and protective caretakers in Turner’s life, but as resisting women who want their liberation too, and who support his calling as part of their resistance.
The narrative falters a bit as the film moves towards its resolution. The ending [no spoilers here] seems to be a little in search of itself before settling into a direction. Turner’s incredible survival out in the wilderness for weeks alone before his capture is regrettably neglected, and Parker shies away from the sheer brutality of Turner’s death. Instead he reassures us that despite Turner’s and his comrades’ grizzly deaths, the rebellion was still significant and strangely generative, birthing a new generation of rebels to come. Birth of a Nation is timely, and in fact, the story behind it always has been, especially now with the rise of Black Lives Matter and renewed focus on the legacy of racism and white supremacy and our unfinished agenda of racial justice.
The film can stand on its own and need not be carelessly grouped with other cinematic efforts at addressing slavery like the very different Twelve Years a Slave. The two films are united, however, in declaring the need to stop running from American slavery and to end our lightweight confrontation with America’s original sin. We must challenge Hollywood’s absurdly restrained, marginal, and simplistic representation of slavery.
The merits of the film, and the value of Turner’s story in American history, does not mean we need be torn about scrutinizing the story of Parker’s College case seventeen years ago. It is timely as well, and offers us further opportunity to confront the gender and power dynamics that have too often been taboo in our cultural discussions. Parker’s public response to the case thus far has consisted of pointing out that he had consensual sex, that he was acquitted, that it was a painful episode in his life which he regrets, and that his life since has been about conducting himself well, being a good husband, father of five daughters, and so on. Emphasizing that he had consensual sex, was acquitted, and has striven since to be a good man is understandable but inadequate.
This is a time of heightened public attention on campus rape though the problem continues in epidemic proportions. Parker is now part of that attention. His status as an actor-turned-director of this significant Nat Turner film means that he carries a heavier weight and expectation. Yes, there is certainly vast space between rape and consensual sex. Yet even “consensual” sex is fraught with gendered social codes that sanction degrees of problematic and harmful behavior by men. Consensual sex does not relieve one of responsibility, excuse irresponsibility, or harmful actions toward others, or excuse poor decisions. There are different types of pressure that one can impose upon another human being, including emotional and social pressures. These must count as part of the calculus of moral behavior.
Parker should use his magnified presence and amplified voice to help dispel the myth that sexual conquest is proof of manhood or a normal part of college life. The problematic culturally sanctioned horniness of “boys will be boys” is no excuse for hatefulness, or the violent exercise of power. Parker should remind young men that although they may later forge successful careers and family lives, these don't erase any abuse of power that demeans women or themselves.
Nat Turner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Parker was accused of rape and acquitted. We need not ignore either of these facts, nor Parker’s film. We should embrace the discomfort we feel and grapple with Turner’s and Parker’s histories as part of the complicated, ongoing national conversations we need to have about race and gender and the work we need to do change our culture. We should neither impulsively sanitize nor demonize either, but instead, confront the horrors of slavery and of sexual abuse and rape culture as well. There is great value in seeing and wrestling with Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. If we can still acknowledge that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is, arguably the most famous instance of racist propaganda celebrated as great filmmaking, indeed, the very foundation of 20th century American cinema, we can surely wrestle our way through the troubling and fraught circumstances surrounding its 21stcentury answer.
image: Nat Turner by Kyle Baker (2006)
Stephane Dunn is a writer and professor at Morehouse College and the director of its Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies Program. Her publications include the 2008 book Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois) and a number of articles in mediums such as Ebony.com, The Atlantic, The Root.com, the AJC, and others.