I tried. I really tried to find something redeeming about Nate Parker's directorial debut, "The Birth of A Nation."
I attended an advanced screening of the film a few weeks ago, and since then I've wrestled with a response. The truth is Nate Parker may have been acquitted of rape, but he's certainly guilty of making a not-so-great film.
Despite the controversy surrounding the film, I maintained a position that the world needed to see — scratch that — to know Nat Turner. "Birth..." seemed to me, a novel format by which to present this history. Additionally, like many Black people, the idea of another film about slavery felt burdensome. Do we really need another movie about slavery? The short answer: yes. And a film portraying the strength of our ancestors and their fight for freedom in spite of the horrors of slavery seemed like it would offer an inspiring twist.
I had many problems with the film's historical inaccuracies. I cringed at the docile, practically helpless portrayal of Black women throughout the film. But my biggest problem was the utterly gluttonous depiction of Black death and by contrast the delicate handling of white death.
From the opening scenes, we are bombarded with the mutilated corpses of Black bodies. Black bodies hanging like cypress moss. Black bodies rotting on the sides of roads. The sight of death is only outdone by the spectacle of Black bodies being violated. They are whipped. They are raped. Children are drawn around on leashes.
In one scene we are presented in rather graphic detail, the mutilation of an enslaved man who courageously attempts a hunger strike as resistance to his torture. These graphic and brutal scenes are arguably expected in a film about the horrific conditions of slavery. And though hard to watch, all of these scenes stack the deck of what would ultimately spark Nat Turner's insurrection.
Having watched my fair share of films about slavery, I often find myself plotting my own escape or subversive acts. While watching “Birth…” fantasizing was unnecessary. Though many of the scenes were hard to watch, there was some light to look forward to. After all, in a film about Nat Turner, you KNOW that some get-back is coming!
Anyone remotely familiar with Turner would know that what is probably the most heinous aspect of the Turner’s revolt (by white standards) was the utter disregard for white life. Women and children were murdered alongside men without regard. Plantations and crops were burned and destroyed. Nat Turner's rebellion was no dust up, it was war and it went on for days before being quelled.
Disturbingly, Parker's film doesn't reflect any of this! Depictions of the insurrection felt rushed and rather tame when we consider the amount of violence in modern film and television. In fact, one can describe the scenes of white death as somewhat, humane — especially compared to the way Black bodies were treated both before and after the rebellion.
As I recalled the overwhelming reviews and stories of standing ovations for “Birth…” when it debuted earlier this year at Sundance, I had to question; What exactly was the audience celebrating? The film felt less like the birth of a nation and more like the killing of an ideal.
The spectacle of Black death throughout the film echoes scenes of the shooting of unarmed Black men by police that pop up in your Facebook and Instagram newsfeed. It calls to mind the blatant disregard for life and humanity when we see scenes like; bodies of burned Nigerian children plastered on the covers of international newspapers or video footage of Syrian children drowned from overcrowded vessels attempting to escape their war-torn homeland.
There have been many articles in the last few years which have taken media to task for its skewed representation of Black and Brown corpses and the refusal to treat white bodies the same. Many argue that the widely disseminated images of non-white corpses contributes to the ever-growing dehumanization of Black and Brown people.
In her article “There’s a double standard for showing white and non-white corpses in the media”, Natasha Lennard writes:
"Documentation and archive, especially of corpses, always risks continued dehumanization. The desire that white lives be removed from such corporeal archiving highlights this point. I would argue that in our current media culture, bearing witness always becomes spectacle... There is a deplorable history of oppressive power structures using the spectacle of killing to affirm their sovereign control, including the Islamic State’s taped executions, public lynching in the South, and all medieval public torture."
Nate Parker's film is not exempt from this criticism. And though scenes of violence with respect to Black bodies in a film centered on enslavement is to be anticipated, it should also be expected that a film about the most significant revolt by enslaved people in the US would deal out violence even-handedly. However the inconsistencies in "Birth..." cast a glaring light and make watching the film and the important history it claims to represent not only problematic but extremely disappointing.
Nat Turner's rebellion represents for many, a cathartic and empowering portrait, one that flies in the face of the dominant narrative of the feeble, broken, docile, enslaved African. But Parker's film muddies that history with a retelling that is not only factually inaccurate but also reads as a distorted and skewed visual text.
Turner's rebellion was never viewed as a failed attempt because in many ways it really was a wake-up call to the nation. And it continues to be a wake-up call to the descendants of those very brave and noble Africans who sacrificed so much that we can now be in a position to tell their stories. But if we are going to tell them, let's tell them right.
My suggestion; consider using that money you would be spending on movie tickets to buy a book like "Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory" by Kenneth Greenberg.