Racism, rape and ‘Birth of a Nation’
We need to have a conversation. Make that many conversations.
Nate Parker, the 36-year-old writer-director-star of “The Birth of a Nation,” wants people to talk about his film, which tells of an 1831 slave revolt in Virginia led by Nat Turner, as well as slavery and its continuing legacy. He wants more people to know about the film’s protagonist, a polarizing and complicated historical figure.
When it first screened earlier this year at Sundance, “The Birth of a Nation” drew raves and was purchased by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. The company undoubtedly sensed Oscar, having already shepherded “12 Years a Slave” to a best-picture win.
Then a 1999 rape charge against Parker re-surfaced in August, and a firestorm erupted that overshadowed Friday’s release of the film. Since then, the actor has been reticent to discuss the “incident” — as Searchlight innocuously labeled it in a statement — in any substantive way. The issue is complicated by scenes in movie that show the rape of Turner’s wife and another slave as part of his motivation for rebellion.
Now, it’s become impossible to talk about the movie without discussing the rape charge.
“I was vindicated. I was proven innocent,” Parker told Anderson Cooper on Sunday. The “60 Minutes” journalist had asked if he felt he had anything to apologize for.
“I feel terrible that, you know, her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is — no,” he said.
If the circumstances of the case were cut and dried, that might suffice, but as we well know, “not guilty” does not mean the exact same thing as “vindicated” or “proven innocent.”
“The absence of a conviction does not indicate the absence of guilt,” wrote Amy Ziering, producer of “The Hunting Grounds,” a searing documentary about campus rape, in the Hollywood Reporter.
While Parker was acquitted, his roommate Jean Celestin, who shares a writing credit on “Birth,” was convicted, but that was overturned. The case was never retried. In 2012, Parker’s accuser killed herself.
“I think the ghosts continued to haunt her,” her brother wrote.
Last week, the accuser’s sister wrote that as Parker became famous, it tormented her sister “to see him thrive while she was still struggling.”
In “The Birth of a Nation,” Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor herself, plays Esther, one of the slaves who is raped. Like many, the actress is torn by the circumstances surrounding the film but sees the story as important.
“Silence certainly does not equal ‘yes,’ “Union wrote in an op-ed piece.
Nat Turner’s story
Nat Turner’s violent rebellion lasted less than 48 hours and resulted in the deaths of approximately 60 whites, which led to hundreds of slaves and free blacks being killed in retaliation.
While historical records are incomplete in many ways, there are a few undisputed facts that we know about the “extraordinary 31-yearold man who was inspired by a series of heavenly visions to lead his people in a great battle to destroy slavery,” as described
by Kenneth S. Greenberg in his 2003 book, “Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory.”
Much of what was initially known about the rebel leader is from “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” a result of jailhouse conversations between Turner and lawyer Thomas R. Gray.
In the press notes for the film, Parker is dismissive of the original “Confessions.” Most historians, though, acknowledge that Gray’s pamphlet includes enough facts to make it an important document.
Parker clearly portrays Turner as a hero, and the film leans toward a hagiography. For many, a troublesome fact about Turner is that women and children, including infants, were killed in the revolt.
But we know Turner was a man of faith. He could read, but was probably only allowed to read the Bible by his masters. As shown in the film, Turner begins to see contradictions in the Bible, which both condones and condemns slavery. What turned him into a rebel? Why did he take on the this horrendous system when others didn’t? Parker shows a series of injustices, including the beating and rape of his wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King).
Turner waited for a sign from God to launch the rebellion. This came in the form of a solar eclipse. Even in Parker’s film, it would be hard to see the rebel leader as a strategist. His intention was to go from plantation to plantation and gather an army of slaves along the way. The revolt quickly stumbled before being brutally put down, and it isn’t hard to argue that it was a suicide mission.
Though there was a conscious effort by the state to erase its memory, the rebellion and its leader continued to burn in many people’s imaginations. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass would refer to him as “General Turner.” Others afterward, like Parker, see Turner
as an inspiration.
“The Birth of a Nation” adds to a number of excellent recent TV shows and
movies dealing with racism and black history, such as “Underground,” History’s “Roots” remake, “Atlanta,”
Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” and her documentary “13th.” Like other historically based movies, “Birth’s” weakness
is that it tries to make Turner twice as good as he possibly could be, but that’s for audiences to decide.
Nate Parker, center, stars as slave preacher-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation.”