Should you watch or should you turn away in protest? That is the question that audiences are ironically asked today. Will you go and see a movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” that was written and directed by and starring a man, Nate Parker, who was accused and acquitted of rape?
The irony is that in yesteryear, the movie that this movie was named for was also subject to protests. In a #BlackLivesMatter era, the original movie, which is gives a favorable view of the Ku Klux Klan, should raise concerns of racism.
The original movie was directed by D.W. Griffith and released in 1915. Originally called “The Clansman” ( Ku Klux Klan), it’s now in National Film Registry. That movie uses what is now a convention for viewing the American Civil War: Intertwining the lives of two families, North and South.
When that movie came out, there were protests in Boston. The NAACP attempted to get the movie banned and held a public education campaign about the movie’s inaccuracies.
Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” is a fictionalized account of Nat Turner, a man born into slavery who grew up to lead a bloody slave rebellion that made him infamous. Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia wasn’t the first slave revolt.
According to a PBS webpage about a Nate Turner documentary, “A Troublesome Property,” the first serious rebellion was in 1663 in Virginia, when white and black slaves were betrayed by a co-conspirator. In South Carolina, armed slaves attempt to escape in the 1739 Stono Rebellion. Just 31 years prior to the Turner incident, a religious man named Gabriel Prosser plotted an attack on Richmond, Virginia but was betrayed.
In Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation, ” Turner is portrayed as religious, drawing from two different traditions: African and Christian. During a nighttime secret ceremony in the swamps of Southampton County, Virginia (filmed in Savannah, Georgia), young Nat (Tony Espinosa), is told by other black slaves, he has a special purpose in life. Although he plays with his owner’s only son, Sam, he doesn’t always receive enough food to eat. One night when his father (Dwight Henry) returns from a foraging expedition, he’s accosted by a slave patrol and, Nat witnesses him killing a white man.
After his father flees, the plantation mistress Miss Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) notices Nat’s natural intelligence and teaches him to read the Bible. There are many books in her family’s library, but she tells Nat they are filled with concepts his kind could not understand. And yet just how does one understand the Bible?
Eventually Nat (Nate Parker) grows up to preach the good word to the rest of the slaves. Slave life on the Turner plantation house isn’t bad, but after the death of his father, Sam (Armie Hammer) struggles to make financial ends meet.
When his sister (Katie Garfield) marries, influenced by Nat, Sam buys her a personal slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Sam is left alone with the slaves and bottles of booze as his sister and mother move out. He has no close friends; he courts no woman. In contrast, Nat has friends and after Nat courts Cherry, they marry and begin a family.
Up until this moment, the cinematography and script have built a fairy tale of benevolent slavery within two plantations. That changes when a wily Reverend Walthall (Mark Boone Junior) approaches Sam with an idea to make money and quell the unrest amongst the slave population: Having a black preacher teach slaves how to be accepting sheep. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you’ll realize that to justify slavery, you must pick and choose your readings carefully. In the beginning, Parker’s script shows Turner as hesitant, but slowly he gains confidence.
Visiting the plantations around the county, Nat improves his oratory skills while Sam sinks further into alcoholism. At one particularly horrific plantation, both Nat and Sam are repelled by this side of slavery. But Sam’s master is alcohol which dulls his conscience. With this new source of income, Sam also re-enters Southern society.
Nat’s conscience is raised and his anger finds words within the Bible. Slowly, a division grows between Nat and Sam, even though the slaves have been Sam’s caretakers in his alcohol-fueled stupor, the power Sam wields corrupts him. Although Sam displays concern over the savage rape of Nat’s wife, Cherry, by a rogue slave patrol, he allows another slave’s wife, Esther, to be raped by his guest out of hospitality. An influential guest asks to have a house slave fulfill his sexual desires, and Sam obliges. She is his property, after all.
When the slaves finally revolt, as a director, Parker doesn’t flinch from showing brutal, bloody and gruesome butchery. Nat kills Sam (historically, Sam died before the rebellion), but Sam’s mother, the woman who taught Turner to read is spared.
In a recent Variety guest column, Sharon Loeffler, the sister of the woman who accused Nate Turner of rape, wrote that “the thing that pains me most of all is that in retelling the story of the Nat Turner revolt, they invented a rape scene. The rape of Turner’s wife is used as a reason to justify the rebellion.” Loeffler found “this invention self-serving and sinister” as well as a “cruel insult to my sister’s memory.”
Loeffler also read the essay by Union, a rape survivor who argued the film is an opportunity to “reflect on sexual violence,” but Loeffler feels this exploits her sister again. Loeffler even puts forth a conspiracy theory: That Nate Parker and Jean Celestin (who is credited with helping Parker come up with the story) knew the alleged rape of her sister would come up and could be exploited but Parker would be ably defended by Fox Searchlight.
Parker was acquitted of rape charges stemming from a 1999 incident. The woman who accused him committed suicide in 2012. She was estranged from her family. In The Daily Beast, Loeffler characterizes her sister as in “absolute psychosis” with a “violent streak.” If the woman were alive today, she might have been unable to speak for herself.
There are no actual rape scenes in the film. The two rapes occur but we only see the aftermath: a brutally beaten Cherry and a shameful, crying Esther (Gabrielle Union). Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” the audience isn’t perversely asked to be both titillated by attractive naked bodies while repelled at the institute of slavery. The inclusion of rape in Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” makes sense in the historical context of what we know about the lives of women under slavery and as a counter to the portrayal of black men threatening the chastity of white women in D.W. Griffith’s version of Southern life. It also contrasts William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner” which depicts Nat Turner as a bachelor lusting for a white woman.
Griffith presented the KKK as a heroic force defending white women. Parker portrays Turner as a defender of black women and a minor prophet, betrayed by one of his followers, but also by his need for revenge. Like the men who use the Bible to justify slavery by picking and choosing biblical passages, Turner chooses a passage that urges striking back against an enemy. Parker includes another servant who is the voice of reason, but Turner ignores him. Parker’s interpretation of Turner shows a gifted but flawed man, whose charisma ignited a murderous rampage. Parker’s Turner is religious, but in a way that contemporary audiences can relate to.
Parker’s movie comes a year after the campus rape documentary, “The Hunting Ground” and in the same year that Brock Turner, an unrelated white man, was sentenced to six-months for raping an unconscious woman while he was a student at Stanford University. Both the case and the documentary have raised awareness of rape at college campuses. The documentary itself has raised questions about accuracy and harassment of people accused of rape, particularly when juxtaposed against another documentary, the 2016 ESPN “Fantastic Lies.”
Parker was acquitted of all charges. Is there anything he can say that will satisfy campus rape activists? Or will his every triumph be plagued by the past? Will the same sense of outrage follow Roman Polanski and Woody Allen?
“The Birth of a Nation” doesn’t exploit the sexual nature of rape, but it does give a heroic view of Nat Turner. There a sense of paternalism in the movie, where the wives are portrayed as helpless and dependent upon their men. That could be an artistic decision by Parker about being consistent with the times or a contemporary assignment of gender roles. Like its predecessor and namesake, this 2016 version of “The Birth of a Nation” has given the audience plenty to talk about. Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” continues the history of controversy that Griffith started with a movie of the same name.