Why I didn’t see “The Birth of a Nation”

Pictured: Nate Parker, September 21, 2016. Credit: Reuters / Jonathan Alcorn.

First, I must begin with the fact that I was amazed by the premise of the film. History leaves out black heroes and their complexities. So, when I heard about a film depicting Nat Turner and the slave uprising, I was intrigued. The fight against oppression is important as historical context but also it is important for the civil rights movement of today. As a country, I believe it is our duty to remember the struggle rather than hiding behind the shadow of our indecencies. We sweep our cruelties under the rug. We don’t want to take ownership of our atrocities. Turning our cheek from our own history will inevitably result in repeating it. Therefore, when film forces us to remember our history, we cannot ignore it. I thought The Birth of a Nation would reveal black heroes and force us to remember our history.

Pictured: Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Aja Naomi King as Cherry. Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Unfortunately, I didn’t see the film. I usually avoid all articles and media relating to a film (that I plan to see) so that my opinion cannot be prematurely swayed. However, minutes before heading to the theater, I read that there is a gang rape scene in the film. I immediately refused to see it. I recognize black women were raped and violated during slavery. But, I don’t want to see another black woman violated in film especially since rape in film is often used as a device to gain an emotional response from it’s viewers. The film industry has a problem with black women. When black women aren’t overtly stereotyped as a maid or caretaker, they are created for sexual consumption and are often sexually violated in film. bell hooks explains this in both her book, Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies as well as in conversation at Eugene Lang College.

“I want you to think critically of what we do to the female black body.” — bell hooks, at Eugene Lang College

This is an important call for the critical analysis of media consumption of the female black body. Not only are we meant to be critical towards the portrayal of black women in film but we must also be critical of the creators of film. We must hold Nate Parker accountable for how he chose to portray two women in his film. Both Cherry Turner (Nat Turner’s wife, played by Aja Naomi King) and Esther (played by Gabrielle Union) are victims of rape in The Birth of a Nation. It is important to note that Gabrielle Union is a rape survivor herself. She explained to the LA Times about why she accepted the role of Esther, “I took this role because I related to the experience. I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor.” With that said, Gabrielle accepted the role before she knew about what happened at Penn State.

Pictured: Nate Parker, New York City, 2014. Credit: Danny Ghitis for The New York Times

We cannot separate the director from the film. At Penn State, The Birth of a Nation director, Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation co-writer, Jean Celestin were arrested for rape. According to the New Yorker, “The trial jury acquitted Parker of all criminal charges, but convicted Celestin, who is a co-writer of Parker’s film, of sexual assault, which is a lesser charge than rape. The verdicts mean that the jury concluded, from the trial evidence, that the men thought that the complainant was conscious, and that she did consent to sex with Parker, but not with Celestin.” The victim committed suicide four years ago.

In the NY Times, Roxanne Gay explains exactly how I feel,

“I have my own history with sexual violence, so I cannot consider such stories with impartiality, though I do try. It is my gut instinct to believe the victim because there is nothing at all to be gained by going public with a rape accusation except the humiliations of the justice system and public scorn. Only an estimated 2 to 10 percent of rape accusations are false. And to have sex with a woman who said she was blackout drunk, to do so with a friend — that is a crime, whether the justice system agrees or not.”

The fact that Celestin and Parker were involved in creating a script depicting rape of two women is nauseating and inappropriate.

I believe supporting the film would be an injustice to the rape victim due to the fact that co-writer Celestin was convicted of rape as well as an injustice for black women since sexually violating their bodies is a common theme in film.

I refuse to support that.