Race, Rape and The Birth of a Nation

If it is impossible to discuss DW Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation without confronting the racism that drives its depiction of African Americans and its celebration of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, then it is equally impossible to discuss Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation without discussing his trial for rape in 1999. Even though Parker was acquitted, questions about his innocence remain. Race and Rape not only complicate the discussion of both films, but also our perception of the artists who created them. The reality is, no public appearance by Parker will ever occur without his having to confront the anger and questions of women (and men) of all colors who will wonder that an actor-director and his screenwriter, both of whom were accused of continuously raping an unconscious 18 year-old woman, get to turn around some twenty years later and tell a story in which the brutal rape of an enslaved black woman is the catalyst of a slave revolt conducted by one of the great heroes of African-American history. This is important because I am aware of no such incident in any of the historical accounts of Turner’s revolt. Most cite Nat Turner’s religious visions and his interpretations of them as the driving forces behind his decision to lead the rebellion. Did Parker and Celestin decide on rape as dramatic license? To be sure, the rape of black women during slavery is widely known and was certainly used as a weapon of control, an illicit act of commerce and as a sadistic expression of power. But, considering the charges previously leveled against Parker and Celestin, the choice to use rape as the detonator for an explosion of black male rage raises its own questions about their decision. Inherent in those questions are the political concerns surrounding the role of the Black Woman’s body in the American Story, the manipulation of all Women’s bodies in terms of the Male gaze and the threat of violence against women as instruments of control in the perpetuation of Patriarchal cultural and social hegemony. These questions, or questions like them, will arise in every public forum in which the current film is screened and whether he wants to or not, Parker will have to answer those questions each and every time. The African American community may be justified in its suspicions about the timing of the release of this information about Parker and Celestin, but sooner or later that sad history was going to be brought back into the public light. The value of this film as a work of art and as a positive contribution to the discourse on Race, History and Culture in the American Conversation will only be settled by the public over time and through reflection. Political debate or personal outrage may delay that reckoning, but it will not stop it.

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