The Birth of a Nation
Produced by Argent Pictures
Directed by Nate Parker
Screenplay by Nate Parker and Jean Celestine
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Nate Parker has entitled his debut film The Birth of a Nation. He chose his title as a rebuke of D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking 1915 film.
Griffith’s Birth of a Nation had dramatized what the American South suffered during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. In doing so, he presented the original Ku Klux Klan as a force for good protecting whites from newly freed blacks, some of whom were understandably eager to take violent revenge on their former masters. Needless to say, this interpretation of history is anathema today. Parker’s film, on the other hand, honors the slave leader Nat Turner and the bloody uprising he fomented in 1831. It was, he thinks, a precursor to the “necessary” war 30 years later. In Turner’s insurrection, 20 to 30 slaves of Southampton, Virginia, using axes and farm implements, slaughtered their sleeping masters along with their wives, children, and infants—60 lives in all. To make this more palatable to his audience, Parker, without any historical evidence at all, has given Turner a wife whose primary purpose in the film is to be beaten and raped by several white plantation overseers a few weeks before the slave rebellion. Her brutalization is meant to justify Turner’s, shall we say, excesses. A raped loved one, of course, has traditionally entitled men to resort to remorseless violence to set matters right. He needn’t have bothered for the bien-pensants at the Sundance Film Festival. They gave the film a carefully correct standing ovation before it rolled, just to be on history’s safe side.
So Parker’s plot point, though demonstrably fictional, would seem to have a hallowed pedigree. There’s one problem. Seventeen years before making his film, Parker and his friend Jean Celestine, who helped him write the film’s script, were charged with raping a white coed while they were student wrestlers at Pennsylvania State University. Parker was exonerated on grounds that he and the girl had had consensual sex the day before the alleged rape. Celestine, however, was convicted when it was proved that he had joined in with Parker for another round of sport the following day while the girl was drunk and blacked out. Celestine subsequently appealed the conviction and was let off on a technicality. To add to the girl’s suffering, these scholar-athletes and their friends stalked her on campus after she reported the incident. They sought to humiliate and intimidate her before and during the trial. The young woman subsequently sued Penn State and was awarded $17,500—small recompense for her ordeal. Afterward, she descended into an irreversible depression that culminated in her 2012 suicide. When confronted with this story on the eve of his film’s release, Parker responded by saying he didn’t know about the suicide and was sorry to learn of it. Then he tried to put things into context—his own context—giving this obviously lawyer-assisted statement: “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that.” Contrition doesn’t come any more self-serving than that. Note, especially, the strategic use of the impersonal and obscurantist “it.” We can commiserate with Parker for his distress, but it’s hardly likely he suffered more than the girl, who seems to have been a fragile person given to making bad choices. The coed’s sister, Sharon Loeffler, has said that she considers the film’s invented rape “self-serving, sinister and . . . a cruel insult to my sister’s memory.” She further finds it “creepy and perverse” that Parker has used it to “portray Turner and by extension himself in an heroic light.” For his part, Parker has said that he wants his film to “inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad).” That’s just what we need: A “riotous disposition” has already done so much for race relations.
Parker not only wrote and directed the film, but played the role of Turner himself. His telling of the Nat Turner story fails egregiously in light of the execution-eve “confession” the doomed slave gave to Thomas Gray, a lawyer who had represented several of the insurrectionists in their trials. Turner reported that his last master, John Travis, had been kind to him, giving him no reason to complain of his treatment. But Parker changes the master’s identity to Turner’s original owner, Benjamin Turner, and presents their relationship as rarely better than gruff. At one point, Benjamin whips his slave bloody for insolence, an incident not recorded elsewhere. It’s another invention Parker has found useful for making the uprising more acceptable to today’s audience. Benjamin Turner was lenient enough to allow young Nat to be educated in his home. Early in the film, we see Turner being invited into his master’s library. He’s given evidence of his intelligence, and Benjamin’s wife takes it upon herself to teach him to read—but only the Bible. The other books, he’s informed, are not for his kind; they might give him troubling ideas. What she fails to take into account is that there are plenty of troubling ideas in the Bible as well, especially in the Old Testament, where Yahweh is forever urging his desert disciples to smite and slay their idolatrous neighbors. It seems Turner took such passages too much to heart.
Parker has Nat being rented out as a slave preacher to give sermons to his black brethren using Bible passages that counsel submission to their lot in life. While doing so, he becomes acquainted with the barbarous treatment being meted out to slaves at several plantations neighboring his own. As a consequence, he became—as we now say—radicalized and began to thirst for retribution. Turner’s confession reveals he came to believe he had been chosen by Providence to redress the harm slavery had done to his people. He saw visions, heard voices, and imagined himself taking up the burden Jesus had laid down, which was to expel evil—that is, slavery—from the world. This required slaughtering whites. It’s not difficult to imagine that an intelligent slave, which Turner clearly was, would be driven mad by his intellectually stultifying lot. Nor, given what seems to have been his charismatic presence, is it surprising that he managed to inspire those less intellectually capable—not to mention saner—among his brothers to heed his words. The depiction of the rebellion that followed, however, departs markedly from Turner’s.
As Turner, Parker transforms the historical figure into a black action hero who confronts his white enemy fearlessly. He leads his men to Jerusalem, Virginia, intending to take over its armory and its weapons. This did not happen. The rebels barely made it to the outskirts of Southampton. They hadn’t the discipline to refrain from the alcohol they were stealing from the farmhouses into which they were breaking, nor the restraint to forego indulging in more savagery when opportunities arose. But this doesn’t matter to Parker. He’s invented a charge on Jerusalem in which he has given himself a fine chance to display his mettle. He’s center-screen, furiously urging his men into the fray. He even manages in the fog of battle to find and overpower the plantation overseer who had raped his fictitious wife. Needless to say, he kills this wretch in a momentous hand-to-hand struggle, drawing, no doubt, on his wrestling prowess and many a Hollywood movie.
So far from these heroics, the real Turner reports that he hung back from his rampaging colleagues, watching from a distance as they did “their work of death.” He himself killed only one person during the two-day uprising: an 18-year-old girl whom he found trembling in a chimney after his cobelligerents had cut down her parents and siblings. He chased her down and stabbed her several times with a sword. Failing to dispatch her with this glorious effort, he took up a fence railing and beat her repeatedly over the head until she expired. Of course, Turner may have been lying when he relayed these details, but he had little to gain by doing so. He had already been tried and sentenced to hang the next day. Then there’s the remote possibility that Gray, acting as his amanuensis, doctored or simply invented the confession. But, we must ask, for what purpose?
When interviewed for the PBS documentary aptly titled Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003), Harvard Professor of English and African Studies Henry Louis Gates concluded: There is no identifiable Nat Turner. He’s become a property handed down from one interest group to another, each making of him what it thought it needed to advance its agenda. For some contemporary Virginians who had been arguing for emancipation in the years before the uprising, he was an object lesson, a clear example of why slavery needed to be abolished. As time went on, others pointed to Turner as a forerunner of what they took to be inveterate black viciousness and criminality. Others still have elevated him as an early black liberation hero. Of course, communists of the 1930’s, such as Herbert Aptheker, seized on Turner’s story as a vivid illustration of class warfare and a standing rebuke to Americans benighted enough to find fault with their enlightened heroes in the Kremlin, especially Uncle Joe Stalin, who never abused their citizens. I suppose you could make a case for one or the other of these political labels if you’re comfortable with reducing an individual to a political tool. Parker’s portrayal, however, is far more personal. His Turner seems to be a fantasy he nurses about his own heroic self.
Has Parker succeeded in his project? Not if the box-office reports are to be believed. To paraphrase the inimitable Samuel Goldwyn, people are staying away in droves. This is understandable. Even in our age of Black Lives Matter, white Americans still aren’t quite ready for a film announcing that white lives don’t.