The Nat Turner that Could Have Been: The Birth of a Nation’s Wasted Effort

boan

When I walked in to see Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, I expected to be underwhelmed given the criticisms I’d heard about the film. I did not, however, expect it to be so dull. Because this film is about Nat Turner. And whatever else can be said about him, the slave rebel, mystic, revolutionary and preacher, was anything but.

Yes, Virginia, there are Spoilers.

When I first heard rumblings about a movie based on Nat Turner, I was excited like you wouldn’t believe. Then I heard the director, Nate Parker, was using the name of the most notorious film in American history–the racist, groundbreaking, The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith. Given the original film’s ode to mythologizing white racial terror (it helped resurrect the Ku Klux Klan), this co-option for a biopic about the most famous American slave rebel seemed poetic justice. When the film stormed Sundance 2016, electrifying audiences, winning prizes, dazzling critics and landing a major deal with Fox Searchlight, the hype only grew. This was going to be perhaps the most anticipated film of the year!

Then the “ruh roh” started.

Nate Parker had hoped to resurrect the ghosts of America’s ignoble past; he hadn’t expected that some of his own ghosts would return to haunt him as well. We all soon learned that back in 2001 Parker (then a wrestling athlete) had been charged for a 1999 rape of a young woman in college. So had another of his friends and teammates, Jean Celestin. The woman claimed she was inebriated and barely conscious when she had sex with Parker that night, and certainly so when Parker invited Celestin to also have sex with her. Parker and Celestin maintained the encounter was consensual. Both were tried together for rape in a sensational trial that swirled around issues of race (their accuser was white, both men are black) and consent on a collegiate campus. Parker, in the end, was acquitted–primarily on the grounds that he had engaged in consensual sex with his accuser at an earlier date. Celestin was convicted of rape. But his case was overturned four years later on the grounds that he had been given ineffective counsel. The young woman meanwhile, refused to go through another trial. A decade later, facing a life of hardship, she took her life.

For a more detailed account, try this lengthy Daily Beast write-up.

The impact of Parker’s past on his film was (of course) inescapable. Films are always, like any artistic endeavor, intrinsically tied to their creators. Separating the two is not only nearly impossible, it probably also hampers our ability to see the film clearly. It certainly didn’t help that Parker had once more given an invitation to his co-defendant in the rape case, Jean Celestin: this time to co-write none other than the Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation. Parker’s reaction to media questions about all this ranged from defensive to combative, showing little remorse for his past actions or (initially) the suicide of the young woman. At one point, he even called both himself and Celestin the real victims. He remained defiant under questioning by Anderson Cooper in a 60 Minutes interview a week before his film was to be released: “I was falsely accused. I went to court. I sat in trial. I was vindicated — I was proven innocent. I was vindicated. And I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. I feel terrible that her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is, no.”

But a “not guilty” in a courtroom doesn’t always translate to “innocence” in the public eye–not in a case where the issue of consent seemed so murky. As Parker’s past history surfaced, Fox Searchlight distanced him from a speaking tour of his own film. Movie posters bearing his face (who plays Turner in the film) were overwritten with the words Rapist. In articles and online spaces the matter became contentious, as many began pondering and wrestling with whether they’d even go see the film. A few, openly said they would not.

I was one of those doing some soul-searching. Sure, I wanted to see this film. But Parker’s past was problematic to me–highly so. I found his claims of consent with a young woman who, by most accounts, was past the point of sobriety beyond murky. That he’d then invited another person (two actually–one declined) to also engage in sex with her under such circumstances was abhorrent, and certainly fit the definition of rape in my book, legal or otherwise. All of it left me feeling some kinda way. But as I teach on slavery, even a course on slavery in film, I decided I needed to see it. I even used an ingenious method: I bought a ticket for the Mira Nair film Queen of Katwe, but walked into The Birth of a Nation instead.

Respect my gangsta.

As I sat through the movie, I admit I was already prepared to be underwhelmed. More than a few colleagues of slavery had weighed in on the film, and pointed out its historical inaccuracies. I was especially disturbed to hear about the use of rape within the movie as a plot device (more on that later) to spur on Turner’s rebellion–perhaps the most inaccurate feature of all. What I wasn’t prepared for was to find the film so…mediocre. To not be entertained by it even as just a film. I’ve been critical of slave films before. I had lots to negative things to say about Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained for instance, as an absurd fantasy based on slave stereotypes. But as a film, as entertainment, I couldn’t begrudge the movie for doing what it set out to do. I can’t say the same for The Birth of a Nation.

There were lots of reasons.

I never connected with Parker’s Nat Turner as a character. I don’t know if it was Parker’s acting or just the way he was written. But I never became invested in the persona he was trying to create on the screen. I never even bought the drawn out method of his conversion to slave rebel, which (paradoxically) happens abruptly. I had little attachment at all to the other characters, who were even less developed than Nat Turner. The plot was meandering and the pacing seemed far off. I don’t think the rebellion started until perhaps close to an hour and a half (?) into the movie. I’m all for a good buildup, but if you’re going to make me wait that long you’d better have a heckuva pay off. Instead, I was treated to a  rebellion that seemed to erupt out of nowhere (very little planning was involved) and was over as quickly as it arrived. Even the much publicized (and fictive) Gangs of New York style mano a mano, hand-to-hand combat scene, between the slave rebels and white slave hunters, turned out to be rather brief and unsatisfying.

By the time the film rushed to the end, seeing Nat Turner hanging by a rope before a cheering crowd of red-white-and-blue lost whatever profound impact and symbolism it was supposed to have for me–perhaps because the television series Underground had already done it to spectacular effect. The finale scene in which a young slave boy who informed on Nat is transformed into an adult Union soldier was so Spielberg-esque and tidy, I wondered if the film even knew what it wanted to be: avant-garde or nationalist blockbuster?

This is of course, like any critique, is a subjective reading. I’m sure there are some who will see The Birth of a Nation and declare it great cinema–those first observers at Sundance certainly did. I couldn’t gauge the reaction of the small audience in attendance when I saw it–about twenty persons, all black, and overwhelmingly women. We all filed out mostly in silence. Maybe they were over-awed. Or they were trying to process what they’d just seen. The film had some positives that are worth mentioning: some rather poignant portrayals of the everyday brutality of slave life in a rather graphic forced-feeding scene; the differing ways religion could be interpreted by slaves and slave owners; the dysfunctional, almost familial, relationships that occurred within the plantation household; the retributive massacre in the aftermath of the rebellion.

But overall, I came away thinking there were some seriously missed opportunities for a film that promoted such a bold premise. I’ll mention a few below.

Historical Accuracy

I won’t want to rehash all of the ways the film diverged from history here. I think it’s been well-covered by more than a few historians in mainstream publications, particularly Leslie Alexander and Vanessa Holden. They were, however, numerous such divergences that were surprising and puzzling. It’s not that Nat Turner’s life doesn’t open itself up to interpretation; it’s certainly been interpreted and reinterpreted over time. Beyond newspaper accounts, slave witnesses of the aftermath, and court cases, the most cited and valuable source on the rebellion remains The Confessions of Nat Turner by the lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray, as transcribed to him by the captured rebel. While largely accepting the larger narrative, scholars have long pondered what may have been misinterpreted, lost, or excised, in Gray’s transcription. This leaves quite a bit of room for any director to explore, to get at a deeper understanding of Turner as an individual.

So some of you are likely asking: “then what movie is ever historically accurate?” And I’d have to tell you, none of them. Not fully. Films on history are the works of directors and writers, attempting to appeal to audiences through a dramatic narrative. Even when historical consultants are used, the impact of their input is at the director’s discretion. Their inclusion is often to give a film the air of historicity to audiences, not to restrain a director’s grand vision. (Thus far, to my knowledge, there were no professional historical consultants for Nate Parker’s adaptation). But what a film chooses to change in its telling of history, and how that change is presented, can tell us a lot about what a director wants their audience to come away with in the end.

Take for instance Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. Though based on an 1853 slave narrative by Solomon Northrup, the film makes several alterations: most noticeably, it chooses to center the slave woman Patesy’s experience in a way the narrative does not; it also diminishes the presence of several white men who had much larger roles in the narrative. These divergences from Northrup’s narrative like reflect McQueen’s desire to (1) highlight the issues of slave women as a central theme and (2) to avoid the all-too-familiar “white savior” trope in Hollywood. It could even be argued those changes may have diverged from a strict interpretation of Northrup’s narrative, but got to larger truths about the lived history of slavery.

So as I assessed The Birth of A Nation the question I asked was, what do the historical changes to Nat Turner’s narrative tell us about Parker and Celestin’s vision? And what, in the end, did they want their audiences to see?

The Gender Gap

One of the greatest changes made in this film surrounds the use of gender. As write-ups in more than a few articles show, slave women were mostly silenced in Parker’s cinematic retelling of the Southampton rebellion. It was so glaring, in fact, it stood out to me right away. Not much is known about Nat Turner’s father, for instance, but Parker certainly plays up his reputed rebelliousness in early scenes–as if to suggest this is the source of Nat’s rebellious streak. This is likely taken from Nat’s own statement that his father had run away when he was young.

Turner’s mother, however, remains mostly a background presence. His mother is a woman who takes him to an African male priest who prophecies his coming greatness, but who doesn’t seem to be responsible for any of her son’s later rebelliousness. Neither does his grandmother, though it is both women who raise him. This notion, that Nat was raised in a community, among which many were women, whose individual acts of daily resistance may have contributed to his persona, is all but absent.

Neither were slave women absent from the actual rebellion. At least one enslaved black woman was said to ride with the rebels. Another was tried and executed as a rebel. Scholars have found that women played intricate roles in the rebellion, some supporting and giving aid to Nat and the rebels, others testifying against them, or dying at the hands of vengeful whites because of them.

In contrast, the other women in the film are mostly reduced to victims of rape and sexual exploitation. There is a historical point to be made here–on the reality of the sexual abuse that was all too common in slave life. However in Parker’s telling, these rapes might be terrible for slave women, but they are even more terrible for slave men. The gang rape of Nat’s wife Cherry (a likely contrived scene) leaves her so badly bruised and broken she is literally rendered speechless, only able to mumble to her overwrought husband that he should leave matters in the hands of God. It is not she who seeks vengeance for the wrong done to her in the end, but Nat.

When the slave woman Esther is raped (played by actress Gabrielle Union), she is also rendered speechless–which was at the behest of Union herself, a rape survivor. This leaves her husband to speak for her pain. When she encounters him, she must both comfort herself and his own grief and emasculation. A third rape occurs to what appears to be a teenage girl; she remains an equally silent victim, lifted away to safety into the arms of an avenging male slave rebel.

Given Parker and Celestin’s background regarding charges of sexual assault, their seeming obsession with the rape of slave women, and of making men their avenging saviors, can’t escape being awkward. But, perhaps, it didn’t have to be. The narratives of slave women and their resistance to sexual exploitation is also part of the history of slavery. The nineteen-year-old slave Celia, who in 1850s Missouri, hacked to death her master who had raped her (and sold away their children) for five years, is evidence of this. In fact, Celia’s would-be accomplice and lover, a slave field hand named George, allegedly plotted the murder but backed out of it at the last-minute. Celia had to take matters into her own hands, for which she was executed.

And she wasn’t alone.

Ex-slave Fannie Berry of Virginia spoke of physically thwarting the attack of a white overseer: “We tusseled an’ knocked over chairs an’ when I got a grip I scratched his face all to pieces; an der wuz no more bothering Fannie from him.” Ex-slave Mamie Thompson said that when a white overseer attempted to “carry on” with her mother, he learned the hard way that “he couldn’t overpower her.” Former slave Richard Macks told the story of a slave woman who castrated a slave trader who attempted to rape her, an act that resulted in his death.

This is not to say that all slave women were able to so “valiantly” resist their attackers. These were undoubtedly as rare as rebels like Nat Turner. Slavery was a brutal regime that used daily acts of state sanctioned terrorism to enforce its will. No story of resistance should ever lose sight of that reality; and victims of that terror should never be blamed for their inability to overthrow or overcome that oppression. But in a film that seemed intent on highlighting the defiance of slaves, the reduction of slave women to a singular narrative (one in which they could only be avenged or rescued by the actions of slave men) was a missed opportunity of epic proportions.

The Lackluster Mystic

If there was one thing I expected to see in a film about Nat Turner, especially one based on Gray’s “Confessions,” it was that of a mystical and prophetic rebel. The Birth of a Nation aims for this. There is an appeal to African mysticism which starts off the film and continues to pop up here and there. There’s a recurring image of a young black girl as an angel, with wings outstretched. Nat certainly spends a great deal of time quoting the Bible. But the film never manages to capture this in an impressive and meaningful way. Instead it seems tacked-on, rather than central.

The Nat Turner of the “Confessions” is a mystic millenarian, who is driven to rebellion not by the rape of his wife but by a series of visions. He sees blood and hieroglyphs and strange numerals on the leaves. He believes the Holy Ghost reveals itself to him, and shows him miracles. He claims to see black and white spirits in some epic struggle in the sky. Nat even runs away at one point, only to return to have a series of visions–like Jesus in the wilderness. The scenes in the film never quite capture this sense of impending apocalyptic confrontation.

What should be a world of religious mysticism through the eyes of a seer, is reduced to a series of glimpses that look like a dream. We’re taken periodically into a murky mist-filled woods. There, we see robed menacing spirits garbed in black that peek out from behind trees. I couldn’t shake the impression of some broke-ass Sith Lords skulking about. These scenes never live up to the grandeur of Nat’s perspective, where the fantastic and the mysterious intrude upon our own world.

Where’s My Rebellion?

One of the critiques made of Spielberg’s 1997 Amistad, was what should have been a powerful story of rebellion on slave ship, was reduced to a court room drama. After waiting for the rebellion to start, by its brief end I was left feeling much the same way. The rebellion has a few scenes of meted out justice on plantation owners, including an invented scene in which Nat kills his owner. But we’re never allowed to see the rebellion we expect–in all its blood and vengeance. I didn’t expect to be taken through the killing of all 60 whites, men, women and children, with precision and detail. But I did wish the film spent more time with the rebels, showing their rebellion and the choices they made, picking up others as they went along, and their reasons for joining. I couldn’t tell if the director feared that delving into this brutality might diminish Nat in the audience’s eyes, or if there was concern for the sensitivity of violence upon white bodies on-screen. Either way, it left a hollowed out insurrection in its wake.

Aftermath

The aftermath of Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of bloody retribution by whites on the slave populace. While Nat eluded capture, slaves (most of who had nothing to do with the rebellion) were killed by white mobs. The exact number is disputed (they range from the dozens to hundreds), but the grisly murders were recounted in newspapers and by former slaves like Harriet Jacobs. The film recreates this, perhaps one of its most skillful scenes, by showing a tree adorned with the swaying bodies of numerous lynching victims–as an anachronistic Billie Holiday belts out Strange Fruit. In Parker’s version of history, Nat heroically walks into town to surrender–perhaps to spare his wife–and is beaten by a mob. In reality, Turner eluded his hunters by hiding away in a hole, only to be captured by a white man who owned no slaves. Weary and starved, he is said to have famously surrendered his sword before being tied up and led into town. Perhaps to maintain his nobility, we see Nat’s body hanged but not its eventual gory skinning and dismemberment. Instead, words on the screen tell us of this macabre event.

The aftermath of Parker’s creation has been filled with its own tumult. Once hailed as a much awaited film, it was labeled a flop at the box office. The blame for this by the film’s defenders was not placed on Parker’s own troubled past, the criticisms of historical inaccuracy, or the middling reviews it received from critics. Instead, an online tirade began to promote the story that The Birth of a Nation’s under performance was the fault of black women. News One host Roland Martin made the spurious claim that black women boycotted the film because Parker is married to a white woman–and was dragged, accordingly, across the Twitter-sphere. The Hotep clearing house “news site” Atlanta Black Star promoted an editorial that claimed it was a conspiratorial cabal of “Black feminists, black gossip bloggers, journalists and white supremacists” who “sabotaged” the film.

Given the dearth of black women’s voices and roles in the film, the charge was ironic. So was such a full-throated defense of what was at best a mediocre film. And yet it seemed a fitting postscript to the saga of Nate Parker’s flawed biopic and the naked politics of masculinity that surrounded it. There is an attempt to separate the two. But perhaps in The Birth of a Nation we see the convergence: a film so wedded to telling a narrative dear to Parker and his co-writer Celestin, one of black men finding redemption by exacting vengeance for the rapacious treatment of black women’s bodies, that it misses the opportunity to be something grander, more inclusive, more attuned to history, and truly revolutionary.

We’ll have to wait for some more daring future director with an expanded vision to give us the Nat Turner, and the story of his rebellion, that we deserve. I hope she gets here soon.

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4 thoughts on “The Nat Turner that Could Have Been: The Birth of a Nation’s Wasted Effort

  1. This is one of the most evenhanded and moderate discussions of this film, and the controversy surrounding its creator, that I’ve read. Thank you for it.

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