Racism, rape and ‘Birth of a Na­tion’

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - LIVING - By Rob Low­man South­ern Cal­i­for­nia News Group

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.

FOX SEARCH­LIGHT

Nate Parker, cen­ter, stars as slave preacher-turned-revo­lu­tion­ary Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Na­tion.”

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