To See or not To See?: Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is the latest in a wave of television and movie offerings that seek to share parts of the African-American story to a wider audience. The Roots reboot, Underground; 12 Years a Slave; and Selma remind us—and the world—of the “stony road we trod.” They are even more relevant in the wake of the continued violence being perpetrated against Black bodies and the Black Lives Matter movement. When it was first announced, The Birth of a Nation was greeted with fervent expectations. After a month at the United States box office, it has grossly underperformed and has met with mixed reviews from critics. Additionally, controversy swirled around Parker and his responses to allegations of his involvement in a rape committed during his collegiate years. What was supposed to be a triumphant homage to Nat Turner has turned into a lightning rod for debates from cinematography to rape culture.
Turner’s story is one that continues to inspire, uplift, and haunt. Born a slave in Virginia, he learned to read and became an acclaimed slave preacher. His mother inspired and encouraged her son in his faith. On August 21, 1833, it was divine inspiration through his deep faith that motivated him to mount the largest slave rebellions in United States history, resulting in the death of approximately 60 whites and as many as 200 Blacks (many of whom were innocent). It also led to his eventual hanging.
The films treatment of slavery and religion stand out. Parker captures the brutality of slavery and the repeated violence against and disregard for the lives of African-Americans through some of the most vivid portrayals ever seen on the silver screen. The power of religion is also shown as Turner’s preaching talents sold to slave owners. I cringed when I heard the sermons from Ephesians 6:5 and the curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27). Yet, the liberating power of Christ could not be contained as he led a white laborer to conversion.
The movie’s liberties with Turner’s story are problematic. There is no evidence that Turner’s wife was raped or that a rape prompted the rebellion. The divine inspiration that motivated Turner is shown as an afterthought to justify rage in the wake of these incidents. In his biography, Turner refers to his mother as a far more assertive and influential character than her portrayal in the movie. Most notable is the climactic shootout in Jerusalem. Turner’s force never made it to the armory though they did fight an organized militia force in pitched battle. Also, some of the dialogue did not seem appropriate with the period and the movie’s pacing at times seemed hurried and uneven.
The Birth of a Nation is a tough film to watch and I was conflicted about even seeing it. I am deeply troubled by Parker’s reaction to the questions around the alleged rape during his collegiate years. Rape culture is very real and while his response may have not raised flags in 1998, we live in a different time. Given the role that this rape plays in the film, his response is even more problematic. Nevertheless, at what point does a person’s character (or sin) overshadow their positive contributions? This question is continually salient as we have seen several well-respected public figures fall from grace in recent months. I chose to see the film and am glad I did. Likewise, I respect those who did not because of their concerns about Parker. Turner’s story deserves to be told and in spite of personal flaws and questionable cinematographic choices, Parker has shone a spotlight on a hero well overdue for recognition.