NOVEMBER 4, 2016
ALTHOUGH BASED ON the 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt in Southampton, Virginia, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is, both ironically and by design, more a document of its moment — which is to say, our moment — than it is a window onto the historical event it chronicles. Parker, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film, has been unequivocal about his goals. In the “official tie-in” volume for his film, he asserts that he wanted “to be very intentional about drawing parallels between the past and the present” on the belief that doing so was “the best way to provide context to many of the obstacles we face as I write with race in this country and in the entertainment industry.” What we are meant to see in Parker’s Nat Turner, then, is a portrait of where we are now as a society in terms of race. When, in the aftermath of Turner’s uprising, his wife Cherry surreptitiously tells him that panicked whites are roaming the countryside, “killing people everywhere. For no reason at all, but being black,” we are meant to hear her words as a lament not merely for the scores of slaves and free blacks who, though they were uninvolved in the revolt, were killed nonetheless as conspirators, but also for the Trayvon Martins, Philando Castiles, and Sandra Blands who have perished in the last few years as a result of racially precipitated encounters with police or vigilantes.
The intentional timeliness of The Birth of the Nation has, to a certain extent, been upstaged by its unintentional timeliness. A past allegation of a sexual assault by Parker emerged just as publicity for his film was ramping up, and “our moment” is not only that of #BlackLivesMatter but also a time when public outrage at men (particularly celebrities and athletes) who receive little or no punishment for allegations or convictions of raping or sexually assaulting women is at a particularly high pitch. Former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, comedian Bill Cosby, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are only a few of the names in this notorious fraternity. And in the eyes of many, Parker is a prime candidate for inclusion, given that while a college sophomore and a member of the wrestling team at Penn State University in 1999, he and his then-roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin (who shares a writing credit on the film) were accused of raping a female classmate with whom Parker had had a previous consensual sexual encounter. Parker was acquitted of the charges. His roommate was initially convicted but then released on retrial after the victim refused to testify. But the dubious circumstances around the event, the fact that Parker and Celestin apparently harassed the victim in an attempt to prevent her from pressing charges, the fact that she later committed suicide, and Parker’s sometimes self-serving attempts to explain and mitigate his culpability for what transpired 17 years ago, have made it impossible for some would-be viewers not to equate a decision to see the film with an exoneration of Parker and a further victimization of the deceased young woman. Indeed, late this past summer New York Times columnist and Purdue professor Roxane Gay announced that she would not see the film, declaring herself unable to “separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity.”
While I do agree with Gay that in some way there’s no separating Parker from his film (for reasons I’ll elaborate on below), I think it is important, first, to focus on an assumption that Gay, despite her objections to Parker, shares with him: namely, that in seeing The Birth of a Nation one would not only be seeing a film, but, in effect, making a political endorsement. Partially undergirding this view is a tacit admission that the true audience for the kind of filmmaking that Parker and Gay have in mind is not those who fill the seats at the multiplex, but rather those who have the means to finance major motion pictures and who must be periodically reminded that ostensibly serious films about serious racial topics featuring serious black characters can generate enough at the box office to be profitable. It is for this reason that with depressing regularity black filmgoers are repeatedly enjoined to turn out on the opening weekend of whatever offering the latest would-be black auteur has bestowed on us in order to create enough revenue to quell the anxieties of future financiers.
Parker, for his part, has virtually waxed poetic on his quest to secure financing for The Birth of a Nation, first by asking himself, “What do I owe my children’s children? What will I leave behind that, once in their hands, will elevate their experience as human beings on this planet?” And then by posing the “same questions […] to my potential financiers. ‘When you are dead and gone, and your children are asked who you were, what you stood for and what you did […] will they be able to point to something more intentional — a veritable attempt to push humanity forward.” These are weighty — one might say, sententious — queries, but they apparently did the trick because Parker concludes this reflection by telling us that “in presenting the project as a legacy-based opportunity, one in which I was myself invested, we created opportunities for aspirational synergy.”
“Legacy-based opportunity?” “Aspirational synergy?” Well, if nothing else, were Parker ever to give up his filmmaking ambitions I’m sure he’d be more than welcome in the development office of any major private university where he could head up the next capital campaign.
To be sure, no filmmaker can be innocent of or indifferent to the need to find financing if they want to produce a film at all. But the ease with which Parker moves between a description of what he sought to do with his film and what he assumes his would-be financiers want to do with their money suggests that there is no inherent conflict between his political/moral vision and theirs. This has been operating as true for some time now regarding most of the socially conscious films purporting to deal with race that have spun out of or into the Hollywood orbit in recent years. As Adolph Reed Jr. noted in a 2013 review of Django Unchained and The Help (both of which were accompanied by a great deal of fanfare as to their social importance): “The pretensions to social significance that fit these films into their particular market niche don’t conflict with the mass-market film industry’s imperative[s].” Those who defend this strain of filmmaking, Reed argues, invest in “claims about the social significance of the narrative of a black hero,” the “need to validate a history of autonomous black agency and ‘resistance’ as a politico-existential desideratum,” the “importance of recognition of rebellious or militant individuals and revolts in black American history,” and finally, the “notion that exposure to fictional black heroes can inculcate the sense of personal efficacy necessary to overcome the psychological effects of inequality.”
When one considers Parker’s account of his own aims (“I knew I wanted to present the story of a hero […] I wanted a story in which the hero clearly sees resistance as on option to overcoming his oppression”), it’s almost as if he’s transformed Reed’s criticisms into his to-do list. No surprise then that the film’s closing image sums up Reed’s final point. We watch as Nat Turner’s defiant gaze from the scaffold meets the eyes of the young black boy who had fearfully betrayed the insurgents during the uprising. The point of this visual encounter, however, is not to condemn the young man. Rather, the unworldly steeliness of Turner, — who seems immune to the grotesqueries that usually rack the bodies of those hanged by the neck — works to redeem and inspire the young boy. Accordingly, as the film closes, we watch the boy’s weeping face dissolve into the image of the black Union soldier he will eventually become, who, with tears in his eyes, charges bravely into battle to win his freedom.
While Turner’s preternatural self-control seems to have been attested to by observers of his execution, no account of this young boy appears in the historical record. Indeed one of the easiest criticisms one could make of this sort of “historical” film would be to say that it takes unnecessary liberties with the historical record. It does, but such a charge would, in some sense, be beside the point. Parker has done his homework, but he has done so with the Promethean hubris of the autodidact who must regard his former ignorance as evidence of collusion in high places to keep from him, and from all black Americans, the knowledge they need to know to gain their liberation and set themselves free. For Parker, what thousands upon thousands of MA students do every day as a matter of course — namely, read the secondary literature — manifests as an agonistic struggle against historical benightedness that has kept the story of our heroes from us. In this, he’s not unlike the current literary world’s most famous black autodidact, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has turned a cursory reading of the history of black Americans into a single grim question for which “reparations” can be the only answer.
In many ways the title of the “Official Movie Tie-In” book from which I have quoted at several points above — The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner and the Making of a Movement — virtually sums up much of what I’ve said up to now. Where we expect to hear “movie” we instead get “movement,” signaling an almost frictionless slide from film to activism to merchandising. The book is a handsome volume that includes essays by Parker, several historians, members of the cast and crew, as well as still photos from Parker’s and Griffith’s movies, and illustrated timelines of Turner’s rebellion and slave revolts in the US and the Caribbean. One of the essays, “The Unbroken Chain of Enslaved African Resistance and Rebellion” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Daina Ramey Berry concludes by intoning that while his body was denied “a proper burial” the “spirit of Nat Turner lives in The Birth of a Nation.” And still another essay by the historian Alfred L. Brophy speculates that Turner’s rebellion “may have helped push the nation toward the Civil War that so quickly led to slavery’s demise.” Brophy’s presence in the volume may be revealing in that he’s also the author of a well-researched study of the violent Tulsa Riot of 1921, which, he argues, might provide a template for pursuing a program of reparations.
For Parker, then, the point of history is not so much to figure out what really happened but rather to enable reparative and redemptive mythmaking. As everyone knows, Parker gave his film the title it has to strike a blow against D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist classic by the same name, which narrated the “redemption” of the white South from the indignities of “Negro rule” during the Reconstruction era. Attributing the US film industry’s dubious record on representing blacks to “the seeds planted by Griffith all those years ago,” Parker sees his response as a call to “‘birth’ a new nation of storytellers, truth speakers and justice seekers.” It was likely a combination of this commitment to rebuking Griffith, who used interracial rape to incite his white southern redeemers, and his having imbibed the revenge-narrative structure of the films of his recent predecessors, that determined Parker’s decision to precipitate Turner’s rebellion by having white men rape two black women — one of whom is Nat’s wife, Cherry, a circumstance that, as other critics have noted, is not borne out by what we know of the rebellion. As the film moves toward depicting the insurrection, it derives its narrative energy from the visceral outrage evoked by both the casual presumption of white male access to black women and the brutal violence that could accompany such crimes.
One effect of Parker’s decision to make rape the act that ignites the rebellion is that he relegates Turner’s mysticism — Nat claims to have had direct communications with spirits who told him that the time for action had come — to a secondary role in the film. Another is that it prevents Parker from exploring what seems to have been a vigorous internal debate among his key conspirators about how to go about their business. In his confession to Thomas Gray, Turner recalls, “Many were the plans formed and rejected by us, and it affected my mind to such a degree that I fell sick, and the time passed without our coming to any determination how to commence.” Having made male violence against women the atrocity not to be abided by any decent man, Parker seems to have handcuffed himself when it came to dealing with the reality that Turner and his band also killed women and children. In the film, only white men are numbered among the victims of the uprising.
Returning to Roxane Gay’s discomfort with Parker and his film, one can see that it is hard to take seriously Parker’s professed outrage at rape in the history of racial oppression and his insistence that his film demands we “take personally any assault on the human body, mind, or spirit — whether it be directed at ourselves or others,” without feeling that he needs to be called to account for his own history.
Parker’s understanding of what Griffith accomplished by making The Birth of a Nation in 1915 also mistakenly conflates the film’s role in the history of the development of cinematic technique with its function in the history of black political subordination. Griffith’s film was more of a monument to and a commemoration of the political counteroffensive it depicted than a tool for bringing it about. By 1915, it had been seven years since the South had completed the process of disfranchising black male voters, a project that enabled the establishment of Jim Crow throughout the region. Plessy v. Ferguson, which had declared segregation to be constitutional, was almost 20 years old. Even Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, upon which Griffith based his film, was not published until 1905. This is not to deny that the film and its source material helped shape popular imagination about what Reconstruction was and about the supposed proclivities of black Americans, but rather to recognize that it did its work in conjunction with a host of other factors. Works of art rarely cause political or social movements. More likely than not they help consolidate and amplify forces that are already in motion. Parker, however, needs to invest in a strong account of the political efficacy of Griffith’s film in order to underwrite his sense that in making his Birth of a Nation, he’s done something more than make a film, but instead, brought people “together, galvanized around the hope of creating a piece of art that could somehow positively affect our industry, our country, and ultimately the world.”
A further entailment of Parker’s view of his achievement is that history, for him, must remain narrow — a conduit for inspiration or therapy, for bequeathing legacies, or for purveying information or misinformation to the present — and not much more. Parker’s understanding of what makes Turner heroic is that he resisted his oppression and that his act of resistance can serve as a model for the rest of us. Nowhere does Parker’s story hint at the way unexpected events can throw light on the complexities and messiness of human life as it was lived, which is to say those aspects of human interaction that challenge straightforward narration.
As Parker knows, the immediate and intermediate aftermath of Turner’s rebellion saw not only reprisals and crackdowns against black Virginians, but also, as the historian Stephen Oates notes in his study of the rebellion, The Fires of Jubilee,
momentous public debate over the feasibility of manumission. Out in the western part of the state, where antislavery and anti-Negro sentiment had long been smoldering, whites held public rallies in which they openly endorsed emancipation — yes, the liberation of all of Virginia’s 470,000 slaves — as the only safeguard in these dangerous times.
Of course these debates did not end slavery in Virginia, but they point to a truth rarely narrated about the South, namely, that it has never been as solidly pro-slavery or even as anti-black as popular imagination has depicted it. For example, after the war, Virginia politics birthed the Readjuster Party, which, as the historian Jane Dailey points out, was an “independent coalition of black and white Republicans and white Democrats [… that] governed Virginia from 1879 to 1883.” Dailey writes:
A black-majority party, the Readjusters legitimated and promoted African American citizenship and political power by supporting black suffrage, office-holding, and jury service. To a degree previously unseen in Virginia and unmatched elsewhere in the nineteenth-century South, the Readjusters became an institutional force for the protection and advancement of black rights and interests.
I’m not suggesting that Parker should be held responsible for incorporating these events into his story — there’s nothing wrong with keeping his lens trained on the Turner rebellion. But I am saying there’s no evidence that, in trying to think about what confronting the past might do for us, Parker ever looked beyond the obvious both in terms of the story he told and the narrative techniques he employed to tell us.
Griffith’s film lodged itself in our history both by virtue of the fact that it told a story that many white Americans came to regard as true about the Civil War and Reconstruction, but more so because he invented or improved on an array of cinematic techniques that subsequent filmmakers, including Parker himself, are heir to. And by rolling along in well-established grooves of cinematic storytelling, Parker’s The Birth of a Nation silently pays homage where it ought to be figuring out how to push back.
Ironically, I first saw the trailer for Parker’s movie when I was sitting in the theater to watch Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey in the role of Newton Knight. A deserter from the Confederate army, Knight returns to Mississippi where he leads an interracial insurgency of runaway slaves and yeoman farmers against the Confederacy and its planter elites in southeastern Mississippi, where for a brief, shining moment they manage to establish the Free State of Jones. Although McConaughey’s role has been panned by various critics as the latest incarnation of the “white savior” story, in which people of color are depicted as unable to act until goaded or organized by a wiser and more able white figure, Cedric Johnson’s insightful review of the film demonstrates otherwise. On Johnson’s account, Free State of Jones in “dramatic detail […] reveals the class war underneath the Civil War, a dimension largely erased by the dominant lore of the Confederate ‘Lost Cause’ that continues to shape Southern and national politics.”
What prompted the campaign of disfranchisement that Griffith’s film pays homage to was, in large part, the interracial political challenge to white Southern elites mounted by political cooperation among white and black laborers during the Populist era in the late 1880s and early 1890s. It was this historical reality of interracial political cooperation that Griffith’s film wanted to depict as an unthinkable scandal. Or to put the matter differently, if one were looking for a film structured to dislodge Griffith’s racist masterpiece and the myths it has enabled, Ross’s Free State of Jones comes closer to the mark than does Parker’s film. And while Ross’s effort is no cinematic masterpiece, the fact that his film does struggle with the usual formal conventions of the Hollywood biopic, in part by cutting across historical moments to illustrate the discontinuities and the missed opportunities that more frequently accompany efforts to move the dial of history forward, makes Free State of Jones more formally ambitious than Parker’s admittedly quite polished, but quite conventional The Birth of a Nation.
But, hey, if you type in “Birth of a Nation” on imdb.com, Parker’s film now appears before Griffith’s, which seems about the size of the victory Parker has in mind.