Thoughts on film: The Birth of a Nation

First off:  I liked the film.  I loved it.  As a black woman who went to college in the 1990s and was ‘threatened’ with rape during that lonely first semester, should I be ashamed?

Lets look at the facts:

Writer/Director Nate Park is the star of the film The Birth of a Nation.  The film is a fictionalized depiction of the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion.  At the Sundance film festival this year the film appeared to much fanfare and the road to notoriety was paved for Nate Parker to become a household name.

On the weekend of October 7, 2016,  The Birth of a Nation was declared a $7.1 million commercial flop by the film critics everywhere even after the aggressive ad campaign behind it lead many to think it may have been an Oscar contender. And in my opinion it still should be, but I’ll get to that later.

Nat Turner’s story is one that needs to be told.  It is a fresh story.  It would have been new territory for Hollywood and American audiences in general to see the harsh reality of life in the Antebellum South circa 1831.  For many, there were no happy endings.  There was only a cycle of separation, silence, inhumanity and brutality.  No matter how high on the totem pole you were in that society, you were still a nigger, you were still a slave, you were still property, and you were less than human if you were Black.

So what happened?

In 1999, at the age of 19, when Nate Parker was a film student in college, he and another young man were accused, and tried for the rape of a young woman.  Parker was acquitted on all 4 counts brought against him, while the other young man, a Jean Celestin, would be sentenced but later have that ruling overturned.

Nate Parker has insisted that the event in 1999 that changed the course of his career in 2016 was in fact consensual and in a 60 Minutes interview he insisted that he was innocent and that he didn’t feel guilty about the crime, though looking back at himself with mature eyes he does believe he could have acted with more wisdom.

Sadly enough, it is important to note that the young lady in question did commit suicide in 2012.

I was told by a lot of people that they were going to boycott the film.  I was told that they are sick of seeing us depicted in slave movies.  I was told that Nate Parker should have been held more accountable for his actions and that this was just his chickens coming home to roost.

I was told a lot of things.  But, eventually I decided to see the film before rendering an opinion.  And the movie is good.  Though much of it is a fictionalized depiction of what could have started the revolt, the images and the story told in the film have power.  As slaves, we were always teetering on the brink of who we were and what we could become.  Life in America became common place to many.  A slave only knew what it is told.  How to think, what to read (if it was allowed) when to speak, when to look your masters in the eye, etc.  We were property.  True.  But, we were also people.

There were scenes in this film that depicted the love between the black man and the black woman beautifully.  Mothers and grandmothers were respected.  Wives were treasured, and treated as such.

But it seems all for not.  Nate Parker’s rape case, the circumstances of it have cast a shadow over everything this film could have been.  In after thought, I reflect that it was ‘rape’ that spurred on the slave rebellion in this film.  It could have happened that way.  For a lot of Black female slaves in the Antebellum South it did happen that way.  Rape was a tool, a weapon the masters would use to keep there slaves in line.

In a Variety.com article, the victim’s sister, had a lot to say about Nate Parker and the way the act of rape was used as a catalyst in Nat Turner’s rebellion.  Understandably enough, she could only think of her sister:

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.

I could only think about myself and what I went through in college.   I remember the stigma I suffered.  I remember the threats:  ‘Damn that ugly bitch deserves to get raped’ and “I could totally get away with raping that.  All I would have to say to the judge is look at her.” and “Just tell that bitch she pretty and you can have her.”   I also remember my own failed suicide attempt two days after my 21st birthday.

Look, what I experienced was just words, and I nearly took my life because of those words.  The victim (who was white) in Nate Parker’s case was violated (I believe that) and tormented and the feelings behind that event stayed with her just as mine stayed with me.

If I could look Nate Parker in the eye, Nate Parker who is now a husband and a father, and the Nate Parker who still lives in spite of himself, I would say I hope that you learned something from all this.  The past maybe the past, but sometimes it lingers like a slow acting poison, and it can keep you up at night and kill your dreams.

To the alleged victim, I hope you know peace.  I hope that Nate Parker can eventually say your name in public and have an honest discussion about you.

To Nat Turner, I’d say thank you, and I hope you are also at peace.

Once again,  I am not ashamed to say that I loved the movie.  I loved the movie.  One day, maybe we can all learn from it.

 

 

 

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