By Khary Pestaina
A group of my friends and I had a great time this past weekend. We went to see the movie “Birth of a Nation”. I’d be remiss though if I didn’t also admit a tinge of disappointment at many of you, who I love and respect, that decided not to view the film solely because of the controversy surrounding Parker and his answers to questions surrounding the charges of r@pe and misogyny he faced several years ago. While the love and respect will always be there, I think your non-action in this regard is counter-productive to the causes of freedom, liberation and equality that I know many of you stand for generally.
There is a scene in Parker’s film which is especially poignant. At risk of discussing a spoiler for those of you yet to see the film but who are planning to, I apologize. It involves a minor character in the story, the former slave named Will, superbly played by actor Chike Okonkwo.
We first meet Will as he is chained, manacled and masked along with another rebellious slave in a cellar, on a mean plantation. Both men are on hunger strike. We later learn that the plantation owner has reduced his enslaved labor’s meal allotment to one meal a day as a cost-saving measure to combat expenses brought on by a drought.
After the older, protesting enslaved man has his teeth bashed out to allow forced feeding, a still manacled and chained Will is forced to the front yard to hear slave preacher Nat Turner’s sermon. Turner’s energetic, spirit-raising oration moves the emotions of his target parishioners. They whoop and holler “praise the lord” as their corporeal pain is temporarily relieved. Will, kneeling and exhausted, sheds a single tear. Later in the film, as Turner moves to organize and enact the rebellion, we see a freer and determined Will commit as one of Turner’s first followers; his one condition, that the planned rebellion go through his former owner’s property to ensure a chance at permanent liberation.
Will is one of the more viscerally dynamic characters in film. A long scar, probably obtained through a whipped lash across his head, runs from his hairline across his eye and down his left cheek. He is a burly and muscular man with a short-cropped hairstyle. He carries a huge hammer as a tool, later as a weapon. During the first stage of the insurrection, Will uses the hammer to obliterate an overseer named Jethro, himself a big, burly man who is awoken from his sleep by Will’s harsh knock on the door, but this is where it gets deep…
After dispatching Jethro with a few strong blows, Will moves towards the bed where another person lays silently. As he draws closer a young girl, maybe 10 or 11 years old springs up and into his arms, like a daughter would to her dad. He dutifully carries her away to safety.
Now I am a 41 year old man, former running back who played games with broken hands and separated shoulders. Twisted ankles and deep lacerations on my legs and arms were never enough to stop me or create pain strong enough to force me to scream out. I have been in fights. I have been jumped by several dudes at once where I’ve been hit, hard, but I never let emotion get the best of me, at least not in public.
But I am also a father of 2 girls, 14 and 11. Seeing that scene produced a pain in the pit of my stomach like nothing I’ve ever felt. If you would have seen my face, I’m not embarrassed to say that tears of rage poured down my face. It was hard to contain. I didn’t. I couldn’t.
At that point it all became clear. I understood why Will was being punished in the first place. Perhaps he was protesting because of his powerlessness in preventing unknown cruelties to his daughter, sold away to another, nearby plantation to be another man’s concubine…at age 11. This is a father’s worst fear. One of the lessons of Atlantic slavery and its history was the consistency and regularity of forms of active and passive resistance, in both big and small ways. Major points of active resistance like Turner’s Rebellion were always outnumbered by more subtle, everyday forms of passive resistance. Africans resisted the demands of relative enslavement on a daily basis, throughout the Americas.
One of the loudest sources of criticism against Parker and the film has come from some women. A lack of agency and historically inaccurate representation of the women in Turner’s life have been cited as reasons. Others decry the details involved in Parker’s 17 year old criminal trial where charges of r@pe and $exual misconduct were brought against him as a 19-year old student-athlete attending Penn State University. What some are calling toxic masculinity and an insensitivity towards victims of $exual abuse attributed to the way Parker has responded to questions about the case has only deepened angst and protest against the film, and this is a shame.
At risk of cutting off their nose to spite their faces, many of those who refuse to see the film on these grounds are doing themselves a huge disservice and are missing out on a fantastic tale of redemption and righteous indignation brought on by the will and determination of the depicted, enslaved ancestors of Turner and others.
First, the charge that women in the film lacked agency and were generally depicted in a historically inaccurate way is an exaggerated one. God herself is an African woman, in Parker’s film. On two occasions, God descends from the heavens to rescue or bring solace to Parker’s tortured Nat Turner. It’s hard to find a more powerful role than God herself, and Parker brings that to his film in a stunning way.
In William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Confessions of Nat Turner, a re-imagination of Turner’s life and decisions based on a written record from attorney Thomas Gray, a man who reportedly interviewed Turner before his execution, the importance of Turner’s mother as the most important influence on his life may have been the stylistic influence on Parker’s decision to portray God as a female, even as the role of his mother- Nancy, sublimely played by Aunjunae Ellis, is reduced in this retelling.
The criticism that the women lack agency is rebutted by the character of Grandma Bridgit, portrayed by Esther Scott, whose passive resistance has allowed her to survive as a slave into her old age. At an early junction in the film, Scott’s Bridgit feigns fealty to hide a rolling can of food her son, the black smith and Nat Turner’s father, had smuggled away. Later, she subs herself as Nat Turner’s parental guardian to cover for her emotional step-daughter, leading a young Nat to their master’s house to begin reading lessons. She serves as the Turner plantation’s grand matron, officiating wedding ceremonies, healing the damaged bodies of punished slaves, and providing sage advice and wisdom to all others. It’s not a far stretch to imagine Bridgit as the key to maintaining a relative peace around the Turner plantation.
Grandmother Bridgit remembers witnessing her late husband killed before her very eyes in the “old land.” She also recalls seeing countless acts of brutality and suffering through her many years as a slave. So much so that after sewing up her grandson’s broken, bloodied and torn back after an act of defiance, she passes away shortly thereafter.
For those familiar with Nate Parker’s 2012 revelation of a maternal ancestry linking him to the Tikar people, currently living in Cameroon, the scene is particularly compelling. According to some historians, the Tikar were among the most devastated West and Central African ethnic groups, due to the advent of transatlantic slavery. Today there is almost no surviving male DNA in the western hemisphere. According to one report, Tikar men would rather die on their own sword than see themselves surrender in battle. As a result, only Tikar women survived the Middle Passage, passing on mitochondrial DNA to their children and extended progeny in the New World. Parker’s Bridgit is a cipher for this history and Turner is an example of the reportedly defiant, insubordinate Tikar men that he must have read about and researched after his genetic revelation.
Through her acts of passive resistance and overall leadership, the character of Bridgit combats the criticism of some like Ohio State University Professor of African American and African Studies, Leslie M. Alexander, who writes that Parker’s film is “constructed to redeem black masculinity at black women’s expense.”
While a respected educator and writer, Alexander misses the point obvious and evident in Parker’s appropriation of the 1915 title- Birth of a Nation. This film is meant to be polemic. It openly admits itself as propaganda, and with its release a century after the debut of its influential namesake, is an overt reconstruction, designed to reverse racist trends and archetypes established in the prototype. And even more importantly, it is the first time the Nat Turner Rebellion, an incredibly important and relevant piece of American history, has been brought to the big screen. Not to view this form of infotainment within that larger context is to miss the greater significance of Parker’s achievement. Alexander and others sound like they want to see an accurate docudrama about the Southampton Insurrection, perhaps called “The Southampton Rebellion,” but that would miss the prejudiced influence of the original.
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a silent film, baptized the Ku Klux Klan as valiant heroes who protected the sanctity of Victorian styled white women and their virtue. Black men were depicted as ravenous, irredeemable monsters who lusted after white women and had to be killed. The movie was hosted in the White House by President Woodrow Wilson who reportedly described it by saying “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
While the authenticity of Wilson’s words around the film are in question today, the impact of its broadcast in 1915 is undeniable. The Ku Klux Klan was aroused into a historical second wave of violence and terror. African American citizens were subject to random attack in cities where the film was broadcast. At least 12 cities refused to play the film for fear of arousing civil disturbance. The film galvanized protest and directly contributed to the recruitment of new members and monies into fledgling organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Equal Rights League (NERL). Most importantly, the film was an incredible success, creating a platform and demand for more of the same from Hollywood.
Parker’s Birth of a Nation aims to do the same while reversing the racist dynamic. Without the participation of many protesting the film for the aforementioned reasons however, this first-of-its kind portrayal of Nat Turner’s story risks failing or under-performing at the box office. For those hoping to see films about the Haitian Revolution or the Seminole Wars, the commercial success or failure of films like Parker’s Birth of a Nation are absolutely critical in convincing investors and Hollywood bigwigs to bankroll such projects.
For the ideologically inclined fans, like many who I was disappointed in not seeing at our viewing, they may be surprised to know that in Parker’s Sundance Award winning film, white men are depicted as loathsome, thoroughly evil and greedy monsters. Another set of criticism has come from critics like the Charlotte Observer’s Lawrence Toppman who writes that Parker “goes wrong…by hammering his audience” with repeated assaults on their collective social conscious. But how would it have been possible to tell this story in any other way? This film is a passionate, uncompromising retelling of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Some refused to support it because of the lack of sympathetic white characters. This is the first, major, big screen adaptation of the Southampton Insurrection, and it dares to take on the original film’s name and essence, but in reverse. Toppman seems to take issue with that construct but what would that North Carolina journalist have said had he been alive, 100 years ago, at the original’s debut? Would he have been as angry at the depiction of black males in the 1915 version?
But back to Will. As a scarred, vengeful member of Nat Turner’s rebels, he ultimately redeems himself in rescuing the young, abused girl. After taking on and smiting the three sibling masters of a particularly nasty plantation single-handedly, Will’s life comes to an end as Turner and the group of rebels have successfully reached an armory in Jerusalem, Virginia. Going down in a hail of bullets, Will dies with a smile on his face as he defiantly raises his hammer one final time.
Almost a spitting image of the West African God of war and masculinity, Ogun, Will dies a happy man. Despite the focus on Nat Turner as the historical and artistic protagonist, Will’s character is the epitome of Nate Parker’s envisioned nation- one where valiant, heroic black men refuse to bow down to the restrictions and dictates of an unlawful, unnatural white supremacist order. In this sense, the film was never solely about Nat Turner himself. It’s about black men, standing up with God’s blessing, to forge a new, fairer nation where all its residents can relax under the protection of its warriors. It is a direct antithesis of the 1915, D.W. Griffith Birth of Nation which did the same for white nationalists of the early twentieth century.
A criticism of nationalism generally is that it tends to be male-centered and antagonistic to the leadership of women in its various phases and manifestations. In Wilson Jeremiah Moses’s Golden Age of Black Nationalism, he criticizes turn-of-the-century black nationalists for adopting a Victorian attitude that paradoxically became a conduit of assimilation for some black American intellectuals, many of whom were men. The trend became a source of critique by some early twentieth century black women writers like Zora Neale Hurston who often criticized the male dominated conventions and associations created in organizations like the African Blood Brotherhood (A.B.B.) and the United Negro Improvement Association. But despite the legitimate appraisal and what may seem to be an irony, there were always black women in the leadership of those organizations. Grace Campbell sat on the Supreme Council of the A.B.B. Amy Ashwood founded Garvey’s Negro World magazine and was a Director of the Black Star Line Steamship Corporation. Claudia Jones founded England’s first major black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette, and like Hurston, is one of the earliest voices calling for “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!,” by men, black and white.
So while the criticism of Parker’s version of the Nat Turner history as overly paternalistic may be legitimate in an objective sense, it misses the complexity of black nationalism historically, absolutely intended through usurpation of the film’s title, which may have purposely intended itself to be male-centric but is always at least co-dependent on the supposed nation’s women for both its potency and efficacy. Feminist writers and critics like Roxanne Gay who, in her August 16, 2016 op-ed ‘Nate Parker and the Limits of Empathy’ in the New York Times, writes she “cannot value a movie, no matter how good or “important” it might be, over the dignity of a woman” and explains why she refuses to see the film. She is right on many fronts. It is true that no matter how powerful the symbol of Will rescuing that young girl will play for viewing audiences, that it is also indelibly true that the abuse of black women in real life, whether $exual, physical or both, is today usually carried out at the hands of a similarly black man. The dilemma has certainly presented itself in the evaluation of popular, contemporary artists like Bill Cosby, R.Kelly and Chris Brown today.
Gay’s perspective has certainly taken hold with some, and while sincere, perhaps valid, misses the artistic bend and careful nuance of Parker’s film. By her refusal to even see the film for herself, she misses a landmark in American cinematic history and voids herself the opportunity to evaluate powerfully represented female characters like Grandma Bridgit, Plantation owner- Samuel Turner’s mother, and Parker’s representation of God herself. Through the writings of Gay, Toppman, Alexander and others who seek to sully an excitement and interest in this film, my fear is that too many potential viewers will miss out on this powerful, valuable addition to the black cinematic canon, which Nate Parker has extended through his ambition and tenacity as a film-maker. While Roxanne Gay and others have given voice and intellectual appraisal of the film and its creator in the negative, I hope the friends who missed seeing the film with me this past weekend will eventually give it chance.
I’d like to thank all the family, friends, students and parents who attended a viewing of Nate Parker’s BIRTH OF A NATION with me yesterday. It’s a powerful film which made for an even more powerful experience because of your presence.
It is only out of love and respect that I’ve taken the time to write this, to you.
Khary Pestaina is a presenter at Excitement Radio. Having studied both Journalism and History, Khary is both a Commentator and a Teacher of History.