I feel like everyone dissected and discussed The Birth of a Nation half to death long before most of us even saw it.
I was excited following the film’s reception at Sundance, and then stunned and disappointed as a past charge of rape came to light, and I know I wasn’t the only one doing some serious soul-searching in trying to decide whether I would still see the film or not. I had to ask myself whether my interest in the film as a person of colour trumped my aversion, as a woman, to supporting the work of an accused rapist. Would the elephant in the theatre allow me an unobscured view of the screen? Would I even be able to view the film ‘fairly’? And what if it turned out to be really good? I ultimately decided I would see it, because I know nothing about the Southampton rebellion of 1831, and it was important to me to see and hear the story told by a Black American storyteller.
Having now seen the film, I feel a lot less conflicted.
There is no way audiences will be able to separate the work from its creator, because the elephant in the theatre isn’t just blocking the screen, it’s damn well onscreen. The Birth of a Nation is disturbing on many levels, in ways that you intended, but especially in ways you didn’t, and probably won’t be thrilled about.
I came away from The Birth of a Nation no more informed or enlightened about American history than I was before. Let’s be honest, this isn’t the story of the Southampton rebellion. It isn’t even really the story of Nat Turner. It is a vanity piece about Nat Turner as embodied by Nate Parker. With so little objective or reliable source material to go on, you were at liberty to flesh your character out any way you chose. Tellingly, that is the only character you bothered to flesh out. Supporting characters exist merely to speak of Turner’s greatness, betray him, or pray for him.
I suppose I was meant to see how Turner was driven to rebel after witnessing the abuse and suffering of his people by their owners, but the way you frame each event building up to the rebellion, it comes across as Turner being driven to exact revenge on specific white men and calling it a revolution. As the rebellion plays out onscreen, the only white victims we see are male characters who have previously committed some unspeakable act against Turner or other slaves, which is pretty safe - no one is sorry to see them go, and we’re one hundred percent on board with Turner and the other rebels. That clarity of purpose, Turner’s moral imperative, would have been shaken by depicting the (documented) murders of white women and children as well. You chose to maintain the shine on your protagonist rather than portray the event with honesty. I’m not suggesting the audience needed to sympathize more with the slave owners, nor that you should have reached for moral equivalency in the deaths and treatment of the slave-owning families versus those of the slaves, but if your stated purpose was to challenge the marginalization or erasure of victims from historical narratives, your story is not well served by then turning around and obscuring facts that are inconvenient to your fanciful hagiography.
Which brings me back to the elephant in the theatre. The representation of women in the film was disappointing, if not downright disturbing given the controversy surrounding your past.
The film’s female characters - Turner’s mother, grandmother, and wife - are portrayed with dignitywarmth, and compassion by three great actors, but that’s more to their credit than yours. The space and agency their characters are afforded in relation to Turner and other male characters, or lack thereof, is where my patience with The Birth of a Nation ran out.
The two events that represent the definitive push that drives Turner to incite rebellion are the rapes of his wife, Cherry, and another slave, Esther. Both events are framed as things that happen more to their husbands than to the women themselves. After Cherry is attacked by a group of slave catchers, her only plotted task is to lie still, her face swollen and bruised, and grant Turner her understanding and blessing and as he begins to voice his desire for revenge (sorry, revolution). Most galling is the way you depict the assault upon Esther. Esther is almost entirely silent for her time onscreen. When a guest at their master’s dinner party demands Esther be brought to him later that night, and Turner is asked to intercede on her behalf, it is not Esther but her husband who begs, “Please don’t let them do this.” After she returns from the main house, it is he who cries and rages against her violation. You build the case for Turner’s rebellion upon her back without so much as granting her a voice of her own.
I later discussed the film with a friend who shrugged and said, “Well, it’s not really a film about women,” but I am unwilling and unable to accept that, in order for a narrative to effectively represent or grant agency to its female characters, it has to explicitly be a story about women. You insist your film is about returning a voice to people who have historically had theirs stripped from them, so you don’t get to skate on employing the very same methods of erasure and denial of agency.
And so I continue to wait for that elusive film where I don’t have to choose whether to view it with my ‘woman hat’ or my ‘person of colour hat’. This is not that film. It is an ambitious effort at telling an important story that is overshadowed by the vainglory of its author. I thought viewing The Birth of a Nation while essentially switching a part of my brain off would somehow be ‘fair’, and it was difficult for me to admit that it just does not live up to its own hype. But as much as I get the importance of fostering diverse narratives and bringing attention to previously marginalized histories, when we obscure or silence one to aggrandize another, we fail.