In July of this year, a 25-year-old black army veteran, Micah Johnson, drove to a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, got out of his car with an AK-47 and started shooting at white police officers as retribution for the police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. It’s the kind of retaliatory violence that white Americans have feared for centuries. The kind that the writer and author Ta-Nehisi Coates said we should have seen coming. The kind that is depicted in The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s much anticipated and equally maligned slave rebellion film that opened over the weekend. And the kind that, frankly, I’m somewhat astonished we don’t see more often.
New York first-night moviegoers shrug off The Birth of a Nation controversy
Parker, who wrote, directed and stars in the Nat Turner biopic, which debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival – where it won both the grand jury prize and audience award, and sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5m – has been embroiled in controversy for months; in August, Variety magazine reported the suicide of the woman who accused him of rape 17 years ago. At the height of his publicity tour to promote the film, Parker was besieged with questions and demands for accountability, which he either deflected or addressed in a staged setting with an eerie lack of empathy (made even more noticeable given how the women in the film are depicted, particularly the two who are raped). Judging from this weekend’s box office, where the film brought in far less than projected, maybe he should have handled things a little differently.
Back when the film sold, black America was still reeling from the most recent deaths in what has become a seemingly endless and horrific wave of police killings of black people since the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The month prior, Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man, was shot 20 times by five police officers in San Francisco after allegedly stabbing a man in the arm. Woods died on the scene, and the police officers went back to work. Tweets and Facebook posts from black people everywhere echoed the same grief-stricken sentiment: “This can’t go on. Stop killing us.”
The racial and political climate was ripe for a film about black uprising, even about one of the bloodiest slave revolts in American history – and soon after, as the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral during the 2016 Oscars, the Academy of Motion Pictures couldn’t believe its good fortune. Oscar buzz was immediate for The Birth of a Nation, and its handsome, hardworking, golden boy director, Nate Parker. I was certainly among the legions of black supporters who saw this as a remarkable and major moment: in the wake of all these black male bodies being killed, here was one black male body that was not just living, but showing up for and on behalf of us, telling our history, and being celebrated for it.
History, though, has a way of being told when and whether we want it to or not, and the death of Parker’s accuser put him and his friend Jean Celestin in the hot seat during a time of heightened awareness of the meaning of “rape culture”.
According to court records, in 1999, a 19-year-old woman at Penn State reported that she had been raped by Parker and Celestin, who, both 20 at the time, claimed the sex was consensual. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and served almost two years in jail. Parker was acquitted of all charges, and now holds firm that he was “vindicated” and so it’s time for everyone to move on.
Black folks quickly divided ourselves into two separate camps: those who will see the film, and those who will not. Roxane Gay wrote an especially poignant essay about why she belongs to the latter camp, in which she states, as a rape survivor: “I cannot 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.”
Nate Parker criticizes rape case coverage: 'Do they care about anyone involved?'
I feel much the same, although as a cultural critic and a black woman who thinks constantly about art and its artists, blackness, womanhood, feminism, as well as my own history of sexual assault and my humanity, I can’t turn away from a film that purports to use art as a way of addressing racial injustice, especially right now, in this particular moment, when we are fighting and dying, rising and falling, and yet still pushing onward out here in this malignant and exacting struggle – there’s too much at stake.
As it turns out, the film is not so much art at all. It’s an egregiously average, sweeping epic drama in the tradition of Braveheart or Spartacus, that is both predictable (Strange Fruit plays while black bodies are swinging from trees; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot underscores the wide shot of a cotton field; a little white girl skips playfully as she leads a little black girl by a rope tied to her neck) and devoid of character development, particularly among the women, who are all one-dimensional (Turner’s beloved nana gives a big speech about pride and heritage and then promptly dies), in direct service of their menfolk, and have about 50 lines between them throughout the two-hour film.
About three-quarters of the way through the screening at a nearly empty theatre in Brooklyn, a young black woman leaned across the open seat between us and whispered as she pointed at the screen: “You think that one with the blood on his shirt is the brother who did time?” I whispered back that I didn’t think Jean Celestin had a role in the film, but that he was credited as co-writer of the movie’s screenplay. She nodded her head, and seemed a little disappointed as she sunk back into her seat – like she’d sat through one whole hour and 45 minutes of this movie waiting for something interesting to happen, and then she couldn’t even get that out of it.
I wasn’t necessarily looking for anything especially interesting to happen, although I was open to being pleasantly surprised – the potential was certainly there. Mostly, I was unmoved by the film. I left the theater thinking not about who we were during pre-civil war slavery, but rather who are not in post-civil war slavery, when black people are profiled and policed and killed and incarcerated for no reason other than being black. The character of Turner’s wife, Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King, says virtually the same thing after Nat’s rebellion has failed and black people all across the county are being arbitrarily hanged as punishment.
Slavery has evolved in modern America, but we black Americans have evolved, too. We don’t need to kill white people to get free. We need to kill slavery and the systemic racism that preserves its legacy by continuing to hold up our humanity in a country with a history of not seeing us as human.
In the summer of 1831, Nat Turner’s slave insurrection ripped through Southampton County, Virginia, leaving scores of white men, women, and children dead. The rebels were captured and tried in Jerusalem, a few miles from where the rebellion was put down. Eighteen were publicly executed for their crimes; more than a hundred other slaves were killed in reprisal. Nat Turner, the last to feel the rope, was hanged on November 11th. His corpse was likely dismembered or sold for dissection. But the county’s slaveholding citizens were still afraid. How many of their own slaves were hatching similar plans? Why had Turner carried out so awful an operation? And what could the community do to forestall a reoccurrence?
Amid this atmosphere of panic, a Virginia attorney named Thomas R. Gray published the story of an encounter he had with Turner in the jail in Jerusalem. “I determined for the gratification of public curiosity to commit his statements to writing, and publish them, with little or no variation, from his own words,” he wrote. One wonders what was altered or abridged, but Turner’s voice—straightforward and calm, stoic and unrepentant—is too strange to have been wholly invented. He starts by relating how one day, at the age of three or four, while playing with other slave children, he had begun to tell a story. Turner’s mother, overhearing him, was astonished: the story was true, and it told of a time before Nat’s birth. This precocious act of divination, along with his obvious intelligence and “certain marks” on his head and chest, set Turner apart in the eyes of his fellow-slaves, in the service of “some great purpose.” He tells Gray, “Having soon discovered to be great, I must appear so, and therefore studiously avoided mixing in society, and wrapped myself in mystery, devoting my time to fasting and prayer.”
That “great purpose” began to reveal itself, Turner says, in whisperings from “the spirit” as he worked at his plow. Gray interjects, “What do you mean by the Spirit?” Turner replies, “The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days.” Other portents followed: a vision of warring “white spirits and black spirits,” then lights written softly across the sky, then drops of blood appearing like dew on the corn in the fields. After receiving a sign in the form of a solar eclipse, Turner assembled a group of trusted disciples and embarked on his fateful tour of the county.
Turner’s deadpan account of the killings is alternately thrilling and terrifying. He never discloses the precise nature of his communication with the “Spirit,” and betrays no sign of moral struggle or mortal fear. Instead, he casually catalogues routes taken, strategies deployed, weapons used, persons slain. At one home, there was “a little infant sleeping in a cradle, that was forgotten, until we . . . returned and killed it.” At another, after Turner’s men had stabbed a woman in her sleep, her son awoke, “but it was only to sleep the sleep of death.” As the band marched on, slaying household after household, they added new slaves to their ranks and weapons to their cargo. Turner organized the mayhem with a touch of sinister stagecraft: he placed his best-armed men on horses at the head of the company, and sent them galloping raucously toward each house that they encountered. “ ’Twas my object,” Turner says, “to carry terror and devastation wherever we went.”
Gray—surely amazed and afraid—asks another question: “Do you not find yourself mistaken now?” Turner answers, “Was not Christ crucified?”
Nate Parker’s film “The Birth of a Nation” is the latest retelling of Turner’s rebellion. The movie premièred to hosannas at the Sundance Film Festival, in January. Shortly after the closing credits rolled, Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the film for seventeen and a half million dollars, a festival record. Reports were ecstatic: there were tears and pealing ovations, and a sense that cinematic history was being made. A week before Sundance began, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had released an all-white list of acting nominees for the Oscars. This sparked an online campaign, hashtagged #OscarsSoWhite: a fast-growing protest against racial exclusion, both in Hollywood’s casting processes and in its award systems. A host of articles and op-eds followed, decrying the state of affairs.
Against this backdrop, Parker’s new “Birth” seemed like a tonic. First, there was Parker himself, who, after spending years raising money for the film, produced, wrote, directed, and starred in it. Parker, now thirty-six, had previously been known for roles in high-minded movies such as “The Great Debaters” (2007), about the debate team at Wiley College, a historically black school in Marshall, Texas, and “Red Tails” (2012), about the Tuskegee Airmen. Now he fulfilled the industry’s long-standing vision of the single-minded male hero-auteur, and answered the growing demand that black artists be empowered to tell the often neglected stories of their people. “This is a blow against white supremacy and racism in this country and abroad,” Parker said of his movie, on a panel at Sundance.
In interviews with entertainment reporters, Parker spoke about the risk of his undertaking. If he sometimes seemed to conflate Turner’s solemn destiny with his own, no one was in the mood to judge him too harshly. After the festival, he embarked on a publicity tour, which included a stop at Wiley College, where he endowed a school of film and drama, to be named after him. Parker had been planning “The Birth of a Nation” for years, but in 2016 Nat Turner’s story took on a dark, premonitory relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to the rolling, hate-tinged farce of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign. This last dimension was deepened by the grand gesture of the film’s title, identical to that of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 adaptation of the novel “The Clansman,” a paean to the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan. By linking Turner’s tale to that story, “Birth” promised a rewriting of America’s relationship to violence and its beginnings in blood.
It took a deeper knowledge of Parker to halt the movie’s rapturous reception. In 1999, a female classmate at Penn State had accused him and a close friend, Jean Celestin—who co-wrote “The Birth of a Nation”—of sexual assault. The young woman further reported that Parker and Celestin had initiated a campaign of harassment against her. Parker was acquitted at trial; Celestin was convicted, but successfully appealed the verdict on the grounds of ineffective counsel, and the district attorney declined to retry the case. Parker had addressed these issues during promotional interviews for his earlier, lower-profile projects, but the allegations resurfaced in the press as the wide release of “Birth” approached, months after his coronation at Sundance. And there was a fact not previously reported: the woman who accused Parker had, years later, after several attempts, taken her own life.
But none of this—neither the early raves nor the condemnation that followed these revelations—told us much about the movie itself.
“The Birth of a Nation” begins with a campfire in the middle of the woods at night. Light slides across the face of a wise-eyed figure—a shaman, possibly, or a voodoo priest—with paint slathered in curious signs across his body. There are others around the fire, painted in chalky blues and purples, chanting and moaning as a young Nat Turner is prodded into the light. The shaman observes Turner’s “marks”—three keloid dots in a line on his sternum—and proclaims, “This boy holds the holy marks of our ancestors. . . . We should listen to him.”
The young Nat of “The Birth of a Nation,” in contrast to the self-portrait of the “Confessions,” is a sociable boy, and close to Samuel Turner, the white son of his elderly master. Samuel’s mother, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), seeing Nat’s facility with words, invites him to live in the Turners’ house and learn to recite passages from the Bible. He is treated as a member of the family—a brief dispensation that ends when the master dies suddenly, and it is discovered that, in his will, he has demanded that Nat return to work in the fields. The next shot is beautiful and harrowing, but also familiar: a wide, ascending pan over row after row of cotton, rippling toward the horizon like a calm white sea. Nat is a man now, and Parker plays him with a subdued confidence. He snatches expertly at the cotton as he travels up his row. There are other recognizable snippets of cinematic vocabulary. Outside the stately white plantation house is a huge willow, from which leaves hang like tender green ropes. Slave children kick up dust, not yet initiated into the horrors to come. Although we know that the film will end in blood and rebellion, “Birth” largely deals with day-to-day slave experience.
The formulas of this genre are nearly as old as the movies. They were introduced to audiences at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was adapted, over and over, for the screen. After the rise of Black Power, a steady stream of movies on the subject reached theatres in the nineteen-seventies. Toward the end of that decade, the TV miniseries “Roots,” based on the book by Alex Haley, held households rapt for eight consecutive nights, culminating in a finale that remains one of the most-watched programs in television history. This decade has seen another burst of interest: in 2013 alone, there were seven feature films about slavery. Most of them bore the distinct trappings of upper-middlebrow art—they were the sorts of movie that attract critical plaudits and awards.
The most notable of these was Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture. It was adapted, by John Ridley, from a narrative by Solomon Northup, who had been a free man in New York State before he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. McQueen’s movie borrowed much from its predecessors: the menacing droop of a willow, a sea of cotton, a whipping post, a tree of scars. It was buoyed, however, by the way McQueen allowed the distinctive element of his source material—Northup’s free status before and after the years of his captivity—to determine the structure and tone of his work. Pressed in on either side by the open—if ultimately contingent—air of Northern liberation, the familiar images of plantation life speak with a kind of snarl, mocking the idea of an “exceptional” black man in a country still in thrall to the trade in human beings. McQueen arranges his actors in a series of long-held, reluctantly pretty tableaux, as mannered as a landscape of the Hudson River School—as something, in other words, that Northup might have had the cultivation to appreciate. In one scene, Northup is hanged from a massive tree, and is saved only by touching his tiptoes against the ground. The world, as he hangs, is otherwise beautifully normal. People mill about; leaves rustle in the breeze. Northup’s quiet struggle for life is little more than a smudge atop the canvas.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” from 2012, is, in some ways, a closer companion to “The Birth of a Nation.” Like Parker’s Turner, Tarantino’s protagonist, played by Jamie Foxx, has bloody retribution in mind. But Tarantino drew on the stylizations of the spaghetti Western, and the freedom of fiction, which enabled him to present Foxx’s virile performance as a kind of sly joke. Viewers could enjoy Django’s blood-soaked expedition through the South without the constraints of history or the coercions of seriousness. The Western also presented an opportunity to recast other stock characters, such as the loyal, crafty house slave, in this case played to magnificent effect by Samuel L. Jackson. There was a willow, but Django stood under its tendrils with the Southern gentleman’s frilled collar, formfitting vest, and buckled shoes. Suddenly, the familiar ruined beauty of the South took on the Technicolor of seventies blaxploitation films—which, in their time, had wrung a kind of comic empowerment out of a raft of negative stereotypes. By daring audiences to cheer or laugh at cruel, historically resonant props like the cat-o’-nine-tails—now turned against the master—Tarantino suggested that the familiar stations of slave cinema might be rearranged to lead to a fresh cross.
“Twelve Years” and, especially, “Django” promised to widen the expressive possibilities of the slave story—to add to the cultural meanings of the country’s gravest crime. Parker, though, works within a much narrower range. If Tarantino reimagined slave clichés along the lines of the spaghetti Western and the blaxploitation film, and McQueen redrew them in the lines of plein-air painting, Parker’s secondary influence is the contemporary superhero flick. In “The Birth of a Nation,” slavery is the setting for an elongated origin story, in which our hero, destined for greatness but restrained, for a time, by circumstance, emerges as a nearly supernatural force. Turner, as portrayed by Parker, is not a recluse but a warm, encouraging preacher who delivers sermons in the ramshackle church on his plantation. Later, a grownup Samuel (Armie Hammer), who has fallen on hard times, rents Nat out to other plantation owners, who want a pacifying Gospel delivered to their restless slaves. This device—Turner as itinerant sermonizer—allows Parker to take viewers on a circuit of slaveholding Virginia and thereby witness many varieties of visceral horror. On one plantation, the slaves have been starved nearly to death. On another, Nat and Samuel witness a grotesque forced feeding. Turner, over and over, uses his preacherly gift to counsel obedience. Sometimes his voice wavers; sometimes tears roll down his cheeks.
During his travels with Samuel, Nat comes upon a slave auction and sees a woman for sale, dirty and battered, clearly traumatized by her past. He becomes obsessed, and persuades his master to buy her. There is an element of compassion in this: Nat knows that Samuel is a relatively lenient master, not disposed to rape, which the auctioneer invites, with increasing explicitness. But Nat has also, quite evidently, been smitten, and decides to use the mechanisms of human ownership to draw the woman near. The scene is gross, and not illuminatingly so. Subsequently, the movie asks us to view the acquisition of the woman—Nancy, played by Aja Naomi King—as a kind of meet-cute, which feels grosser still. Nat and Nancy fall in love and marry.
Later, Nancy is raped and beaten by a band of slave catchers. The camera watches the men pounce, then floats away. Afterward, she lies in bed, her face swollen and ruptured. Turner has his first vision—blood seeping in red bubbles through the silk of an ear of corn. He has a friend named Hark, whose wife, Esther (Gabrielle Union), is raped soon after. Nat then defies Samuel, by baptizing a white man on the grounds of the plantation, and Samuel has Nat beaten within inches of his life. Then Nat plans his revolt. He bids his wife and his mother farewell; both, in their beds, look up at him, eyes full of admiration. “I’m proud of you,” his mother says. Nat gathers his men and hits the road—the superhero off to his great task. Women, in this film, are reduced to mere incitements for the wicked deeds and righteous actions of men. The climactic action of the revolt is not entirely unlike those city-smashing scenes out of something by Marvel: all bravado, very little of the spirit.
At the end of “The Birth of a Nation,” as Turner is hanged and the crowd howls its approval, the camera draws close to the face, and then the quivering, liquid eyes, of a black boy who heard one of Turner’s sermons, and later betrayed him. When the camera pans out again, the boy is a Union soldier, leading a charge for freedom. The implication of a baton having been passed is ahistorical, and very silly. The ultimate quelling of Turner’s rebellion, and our uncertainty as to its ultimate utility—its status, in other words, as a genuine tragedy—is precisely why it so immediately passed into the haunted realm of national myth.
I first saw “The Birth of a Nation” in April, at the News Corp headquarters in New York. As I waited for it to begin, I heard someone sigh loudly and say, “You know, I almost don’t want to see this now. When you know something’s gonna be so good—and so important—you kind of wanna wait.” That word, “important”—along with its cousins “powerful” and “necessary”—had figured in the first reviews of the film. Even critics who expressed a slight ambivalence about the movie’s artistic merits had chased those worries away by reminding readers how important it was to have Nat Turner’s story finally presented on an epic scale. Given the chronic exclusion of blacks in entertainment, it’s easy to understand the prevailing critical view that a work of art by a black artist about the bleakest episode in our history must, on these grounds alone, be worthy of our attention. It is true that artistic reimaginings of historical events can prompt us to learn whatever lessons they may contain. Even a bad work of art like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” went some distance toward helping our country face the magnitude of its sins.
But “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was written, by a white woman, as unabashed propaganda. And if we are to judge “The Birth of a Nation” on these terms—as agitprop, however auteurist—it’s worth asking what greater good, exactly, it might achieve. As a Best Picture nominee, it would ever so slightly darken the Oscar proceedings—which, given the stubborn recurrence of killings of black men at the hands of police officers, is perhaps not the most pressing cause of our time. And it would have done so by bolstering Hollywood’s congenital elevation of flashy, often sexist mediocrities. There are talented black filmmakers making movies today—Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins, to name a few—whose work addresses urgent material via genuinely original means. We do them and ourselves a disservice by lowering our expectations, and extending undue credit to bad art.
For Parker, in any case, that credit is less likely to be extended now. The unsettling circumstances of his trial at Penn State threw into even sharper relief the question of the importance—the necessity—of his movie. As with that first wave of awestruck reviews, focus remained on Parker’s person, rather than on his movie. Some commentators—including a number of prominent black women, among them the writer Roxane Gay—declared that they wouldn’t see it. “I cannot separate the art and the artist,” Gay wrote. Others insisted that Parker’s subject was justification enough to overlook or entirely ignore his personal flaws. Parker, sensing that the success of his movie depended on his performance in the media, cast about awkwardly, citing his wife and daughters as signs of his maturation, and referring to what happened with the now deceased woman he knew in college as “one of the most painful moments in my life.” In August, he told Ebony that he was never taught the meaning of consent in sex.
“The Birth of a Nation” is not worth the efforts of its defenders. It’s hard even to call it a successful attempt at propaganda. The early euphoria surrounding the movie was prompted by the way it seemed to answer the demands of its time, sublimating the eye-for-an-eye Old Testament ethos of such fiery agitators as Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad into the safer precincts of the screen. That fire was checked by a different political imperative: the need to listen to and respect the stories of women who have suffered at the hands of men. The first telling of Turner’s story was prompted by fear—a political force, yes, but also a primal feeling, as palpable today as it was almost two hundred years ago, in Southampton County.
In the “Confessions,” after Turner has said his piece, Thomas Gray reflects, “The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deed and intentions, the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm, still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man; I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.”
Gray gives the criminal-justice system the last word. After a listing of the charges, the judge declares, “Your only hope must be in another life.” As for earth: nothing but the satisfaction of the public’s lust for revenge. “The judgement of the court is, that you be taken . . . to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the hours of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”
Slavery in this country was never a hero’s journey. It is a ghost story, and Nat Turner is its poltergeist, dashing pottery against America’s walls. “It will be long remembered in the annals of our country,” Gray wrote of the revolt. “And many a mother as she presses her infant darling to her bosom, will shudder at the recollection of Nat Turner, and his band of ferocious miscreants.” This has proved true so far, and it will likely always be so, with or without Nate Parker’s interjections. Thomas Gray’s little book is free for download. ♦