What I Can Say About ‘Birth Of A Nation’ — And What I Can’t
There are things I’d like to say about Birth of a Nation and its director Nate Parker that I can’t.
What follows is largely a review of the film I’d originally intended to write for another outlet. Due to legal concerns, however, I was asked to change much of what I wanted to say, what I needed to say, about Nate Parker and rape culture. We reached an impasse, and I pulled the piece. My experience is a pointed manifestation of the ways the legal system not only fails to believe victims, but also ties the hands of those who do, and the ways in which it forces writers, editors, and publishers to be complicit in a system that hurts rape victims.
What I can say, but am limited on expounding upon, is that Parker was not convicted of a rape charge in 2001, while his co-writer Celestin was — he was originally sentenced to a mere six to 12 months in prison — though the conviction was overturned on appeal four years later.
What I would like to say, but can’t, is informed by the public record of the accuser’s testimony, from the recorded conversations that Parker had with the accuser — where he admitted they had been drinking, where he said she had brought it on herself. What I would like to say, but can’t, is informed by the public testimony of a fellow male student at Pennsylvania State University, who said that Parker had motioned for him to join in on the nonconsensual sex Parker and Celestin were having with a woman too drunk to say no. What I would like to say, but can’t, is informed by Parker’s own present-day admissions that he did not understand consent during that horrible night and that he worked off of “assumptions” of consent for sex.
Who was the accuser? She was a woman who, according to her sister, suffered every day of her life until she committed suicide at the age of 30. Now, one of the men she accused of the crime is travelling the country in support of his new, critically-acclaimed film.
If you want to spend two hours looking at Parker, a man who (while he recently stated that he does not feel guilty for what happened with his accuser that fateful night at Penn State) added a fictional rape scene to his historical movie in order to make his character seem more sympathetic, I will not be mad. I understand, as a black woman, how little we have to see. How rare it is for someone to dedicate a movie to heroes of black history. And how much more rare it is for those films to be made by black people.
And while we can ignore Woody Allen or Roman Polanski films and still have a plethora of great films made by white filmmakers, sadly, very few filmmakers of color are given the opportunities to make their films for larger studios, leaving us with a depressing lack of options. And this movie is very well made, if you can get past all of the above.
The Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner, the man who led a doomed slave revolt in 1831. Nat Turner’s Rebellion, as it became known, became both a symbol of the horrors that would await slaveholders if slavery was abolished, and a symbol of resistance to slaves and future generations of black people. The film stars Nate Parker as a very well-acted Nat Turner, with wonderful supporting roles by Colman Domingo as Hark, fellow-rebel and friend of Nat, and Armie Hammer as Turner’s at-first sympathetic and later monstrous slaveowner, Samuel Turner. Appearances by Gabrielle Union and Roger Guenveur Smith are nicely acted as well.
The film starts with brief glimpses of Turner’s childhood, and the religious mythology that would later be so central to his leadership of the slave rebellion, and walks the viewer through the horrors of slavery that led to Turner’s shift from quiet slave preacher to rebel leader (with the addition of a fictional and brutal rape of his wife Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King). This film presents black history, black lives, black love, and, yes, black death with a dignity that other films, which seem to use the pain of black people to make present-day white people feel good about how far they have come, lack. It is a difficult film to watch, and it is unflinching in its depiction of the horrors of slavery, but it is not gratuitous and it does not forget that the slaves depicted on screen represent human beings.
So, if you want to see The Birth of a Nation, I understand. And I hope that you can also see how the pain of the exploitation and rape of black women that occurred so frequently under slavery is still occurring to black women today. I hope you can see how many black women who were upset by the allegations against Parker and Celestin were called traitors for believing a white woman (their accuser) over a black man. I hope you know how many times black women who have spoken out about their own sexual assault have been called traitors to blackness for demanding safety and justice for black women. I hope you can see how black women have suffered from the brutal legacies of both slavery and patriarchy. I hope you see how even in deciding whether or not to see this film, black women are forced, as they have been so often in the past, to choose between their blackness and their gender. I hope you see how very little of what is made for black people is actually made for us. I hope you can see how common rape is, and how yes, the filmmaker you like, and maybe your neighbor, and maybe your cousin, could all be rapists — and how much harm is done to everyone by pretending that rape is something that only occurs in dark alleys, perpetrated by sadistic monsters.
I hope you see how many victims suffer in the shadow of a nation that finds the thought of addressing its rape culture too inconvenient. And I hope you ask for more. I hope that you ask for justice for rape victims, justice for black women. I hope that you ask for representation for black people and people of color. I hope that you ask for more than this film, for more than this filmmaker. Because we, black women, have been asking for a long time — and nobody has been listening.
Lead image: Wikimedia Commons