THE BIRTH OF A NATION C+
USA (120 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Nate Parker
The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors, through four hundred years and at least three wars... What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history.
—James Baldwin on the 100th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, 1965, in a debate at Cambridge University with William F. Buckley, on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought: ..., also on video, James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley (1965) - YouTube (58:57)
Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever. —Thomas Jefferson, opening quote
Another Hollywood depiction of slavery supposedly “based on a true story,” this time examining Nat Turner, an American revolutionary figure, the leader of the most notorious slave rebellion in American history in 1831, and while there were hopes that an independent production might provide more historical accuracy, where the black writer/director Nate Parker indicated he was seeking “historical fidelity,” instead he resorts to the same trickery of Hollywood fictionalized embellishments, turning this into an overblown melodrama of the highest order, portraying Turner as a Christ figure, where the finale borrows heavily from Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), with Gibson’s name listed in the final credits, working as an advisor on the script. While Turner may have been a religious zealot, believing he was chosen by God to lead a revolt to eradicate slavery, which he felt was morally wrong and violated the law of God, this film erroneously portrays him as a man avenging his wife’s vicious gang rape at the hands of slave patrollers, acting as her protector from an event that likely never happened, where his conversion to an insurrectionist happens only when his wife gives him permission to avenge her rape. As a result, the film completely alters the justification for his actions. When examining historical events, motivations matter. In this case, one can only speculate why Parker and his cowriter Jean Celestin decided to add this false narrative. Curiously, both Parker and Celestin were black roommates on the wrestling team in college at Penn State University in 1999 with both charged with raping a fellow white student while she was intoxicated and unconscious, where she also accused them of harassing and shaming her on campus after she filed charges, including hiring a private investigator to show pictures of her around campus, subjecting her to ridicule, identifying her as the “white girl crying rape!,” causing her to drop out of school, where she eventually committed suicide in 2012. Fiercely supported by Penn State alumni, the same ones that wanted to excuse assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky when he was found guilty on 45 counts of sexually molesting young men, and Joe Paterno, the head football coach that turned a blind eye, Parker was found not guilty, while Celestin was initially convicted and sentenced to two to four years in prison, which was overturned in 2005 for having insufficient counsel and charges were never refiled. According to a September 29, 2016 Variety article written by the victim’s sister Sharon Loeffler, "Nate Parker's 'Birth of a Nation' Exploits My Sister All Over Again (Guest Column)":
As her sister, the thing that pains me most of all is that in retelling the story of the Nat Turner slave revolt, they invented a rape scene. The rape of Turner’s wife is used as a reason to justify Turner’s rebellion. This is fiction. I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape. Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory.
Whether this alters one’s appreciation for the film is undetermined, but the revelations of this past incident, along with Parker’s refusal to show remorse for what happened, has certainly dampened the enthusiasm of the film coming out of the Sundance Festival, with many declaring an outright refusal to see it. Parker is mostly known as an actor, starring in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s underrated Beyond the Lights (2014) while also appearing in Denzel Washington’s THE GREAT DEBATERS (2007). The film has two distinct sections, one on becoming a man and another on being a man, opening in a tribal ceremony in childhood where a birthmark traced back to his ancestors leads elders to pronounce him a prophet, suggesting divine birth, which comes from Turner’s own testimony about himself while being held in prison, transcribed by Richard R. Gray in 1831, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Without anointing him to an epic hero, as the film does, it’s important to remember that Nat Turner is just an ordinary man who was raised in the dehumanized conditions of slavery and made to witness the atrocities that accompany slavery. The choice that he made to revolt against the system of tyranny and oppression is a startling one, where his insurrection led to savage results, as he and his rebels killed at least ten men, fourteen women, and thirty-one children. That last figure is a particularly brutal reality, as it reflects what happens when dehumanized people are stripped of hope, as they are left with no other option but to behave in an equally inhumane fashion, where violence breeds violence, similar to the black-on-black violence that ravages today’s inner cities, where shootings and staggering murder rates are a stark legacy of historical oppression. While the film may attempt to establish this link to the present, it fails miserably, as the effort is undermined by mythologizing Turner and forcing him into the role of a one-dimensional super hero, literally valorizing black manhood, like SHAFT (1971) or Django Unchained (2012), which plays into all the other white-washed Hollywood versions of black history, even though in this case it’s written and told by a black man. Or put differently, the road to hell is paved by good intentions. While there’s something almost inadvertently admirable about this film, especially its occasional artistic touches, it ultimately fails to make the case of bringing the historical relevancy of the past into the present, connecting it to the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance. This film will not change anyone’s minds, as those who know it already know it, and those that don’t either won’t see the film or won’t be persuaded by the content. In the ensuing hysteria following the rebellion, fearful that other slaves may revolt, states overreacted by passing laws making it illegal to teach blacks how to read or write, creating an educational gap that societally has never been bridged.
Surprisingly, what works best is everything that happens prior to the insurrection, where it’s simply a portrayal of day-to-day life under slavery. As a child, Nat is skipping around and playing with his slave owner’s son Sam, where the two become best friends, though each retreats into decidedly different households come dinner time, Sam to the mansion and Nat to the slave quarters. This film inaccurately shows personal cabins for slave families, something that was certainly not the case in Southampton, Virginia where there were no private living quarters for slaves. Without explanation, we discover Nat has the capacity to read as a small child, something noticed by Sam’s mother Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), bringing him to live inside the mansion where she teaches him The Bible. Nat’s father is run off the plantation when he is caught stealing food, forced to disappear into the night and never be seen again. Jumping ahead to Nat (Nate Parker) as a young man, we see that Sam (Armie Hammer) still considers him a friend, believing him trustworthy, where Nat lives with his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and grandmother (Esther Scott), where they are portrayed as a loving family. That, in itself, is a revelation, as slaves are rarely depicted as capable of having intelligence and human feelings. These bonds grow even more intimate with the appearance of Cherry (Aja Naomi King), as Nat actually persuades Sam to purchase her in a slave auction, with a young black boy holding up a sign that reads “Slaves for Sale.” She ends up as the personal property of one of Sam’s sisters, working inside the mansion along with Esther (Gabrielle Union), a silent character who never utters a word of dialogue throughout the entire film. In an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, Union, who was raped at gunpoint at the age of 19, explained that in Esther’s silence “she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular.” Nat has worked the cotton fields since childhood days, making it difficult to find private moments alone with Cherry, where the budding romance, eventual marriage, and having a daughter actually has a degree of love and tender grace to it, offering a delicately humanized alternative to the surrounding harshness. But that soon changes, once Nat is called upon by neighboring slaveholders to have Nat preach to their slaves, teaching them the sanctity of “obedience.” The horrors that he witnesses while performing this service are inhumanly grotesque, catalyzing his growing awareness, as he notices that Biblical passages on obedience to false prophets are followed by the wrath of an angry God, where he comes to believe his own complicity in the slavery atrocities, delivering more rousing sermons that suggest a deliverance from evil. One of the most haunting images seen is a mirror image of Nat and Sam as young boys, but here it is a young white girl skipping across the porch with a rope connected to a young black girl following behind with a noose around her neck. What’s so provocative is the utter obliviousness on their innocent faces, while Nat is profoundly affected by the implication. As these visits continue, where Sam earns enough money to save his farm, Sam also grows more indifferent to Nat, drinking heavily to vanquish the pain, increasingly treating Nat and others like property, not only allowing, but insisting that Esther be raped by another prominent slave-owner. The final eruption of violence is as much about personal betrayal as it is about slavery.