"The Birth of a Nation" (Fox Searchlight)
That I should call this film a masterpiece simply because it does not burden the viewer with a White savior character as a means of letting guilty White viewers “off the hook” when it comes to a cinematic representation of the horrible and inexcusable institution of slavery, would be as bold a political statement as openly praising the film would be in today’s climate of hostility and accusations of immorality being cast against its director and star, Nate Parker.
So let me be so politically bold and state directly that: I am praising the film "The Birth of a Nation" by Nate Parker and I intend to hail it as a masterpiece not only for its absence of a White savior character, but also for the film’s rich dramatic complexity, its calculated restraint in performances, its moments of visually arresting images and the dark foreshadowing of dread concerning the failed, violent collective attempt at liberation from slavery that seeps into nearly every scene, before it ever happens within the film.
What is truly fascinating throughout "The Birth of a Nation" is the duality of the use of biblical scripture as a justification for slavery by Whites that, in turn, was used as a sedative for enslaved Blacks to stave off violent insurrection against White slave owners. In the film, it is Nat Turner’s ability to preach from the Bible that is co-opted by Whites as a means of sedating their mistreated, abused and spiritually broken Black slaves. Nat Turner’s ‘exceptional’ position as an itinerant Black preacher demonstrates how White slave owners were perverting the Christian religion to keep Blacks dominated and docile (by emphasizing loyalty, servitude, and peace in the afterlife), and how Blacks, in particular Nat Turner, were using the Christian religion as a coded form of resistance against White supremacy and slavery (by emphasizing retribution, freedom and violent usurpation of the oppressor). This is the real genius of Nate Parker’s screenplay and the story he worked on with co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, that they were both able to recognize how biblical scripture was being used in different ways by the oppressor and the oppressed. The duality in the use of biblical scripture is what subsequently reveals to us how the real Nat Turner may have been inspired to incite a collective rebellion by re-interpreting and re-coding biblical scripture to, in effect, return the “Word of God” back to its original revolutionary purpose. For the Bible may not be simply a peace and prosperity text as some televised evangelists (e.g. Joel Olsteen, Creflo Dollar…) would lead us to believe, but instead it could perhaps be a revolutionary text that was meant to inspire men to fight against human oppression and inequality in the here and now.(1) Nate Parker succinctly states this revolutionary potential of biblical scripture as Nat Turner in the film, when he says: “For every verse they use to justify slavery, I find another verse that justifies our freedom.”
In "The Birth of a Nation," Nate Parker gives us a vision of Nat Turner as the dialectical synthesis of this dual interpretation of biblical scripture: Between scripture as a justification for slavery and scripture as a justification for all Men’s freedom comes a Black martyr who inspired collective action against racial oppression: His name was Nat Turner. Not since Pier Paolo Pasolini’s magnificent 1964 near literal adaptation of "The Gospel According the Saint Matthew," has a filmmaker so deftly stripped away the modern status quo interpretations of the Bible to reveal its actual revolutionary underpinnings (2); Parker has done a similar feat of revealing the revolutionary potential of biblical scripture as it was reinterpreted by a Black man in this film - with a sword - so to speak.
Another intriguing aspect of the film is the seductive and calculated emotional restraint displayed throughout - not in the effort to make the horrific experiences of slavery more tolerable for the modern viewer, but instead to show what critic Hannah Arendt has called, ”The banality of evil”. We find such a ‘banality of evil’ operating in the same habitual fashion during the long era of slavery in the United States. That is to say, during this era, the buying and selling of Black bodies by Whites was a normalized state of existence; abject brutality was merely a physical means to a capitalist end to help the plantation run efficiently; pleasure in the form of rape of the Black female was just another iteration of the oppressor’s total access to the Black subjugated body. Families were ripped apart; father’s and mother’s lynched; children raped and sold - not just for the sadistic pleasure (although this was a component for sure), but these actions were done to keep clear blood lines from taking root among the slaves (the very antithesis of how aristocracies were built and maintained). (3) Such inhuman cruelty was performed by Whites to insure that Blacks would be related to each other, not by blood, but instead by inescapable oppression, misery, domination and illiteracy.
Only after Nat Turner is taught to read the Bible by the White slave owner’s wife who promptly takes him from his mother, does Nat Turner later as an adult begin to fully comprehend the enormity of the circumstances that he and all other Black slaves are immersed within: A lattice work of evil and injustice from which no one Black man can be liberated unless all Black people are liberated. To better reveal the banality of this lattice work of evil and injustice, Parker has directed a film that resigns itself from open histrionics and maudlin tears that we have commonly associated with representation of slavery in the cinema. This continued emotional restraint that signifies the depth of suffering as a general existential condition of these oppressed Black people, culminates in the brutal whipping scene of Nat Turner that he suffers through in silent indignation, with only his face betraying a martyr’s ecstasy in pain.
One could also say that "The Birth of a Nation" is a masterpiece because it can be understood through the lens of the “Black Lives Matter” movement in that some scenes of this film set in the past, whether Parker intended or not, can have the unjust actions within them traced forwards to the horrible murders and unanswered injustices that are happening to us as Black people now in our own times. For example, early in the film, a Black man has to steal food so that his family might have something to eat, but he is caught on the road by several whites who interrogate him roughly with guns drawn. They order him to stop moving, to identify himself, to hold up his hands, to kneel, to turn his back and to show his “pass”. All of these demands that are set in the past speak to how Black people are continually treated today when they are stopped on the road by the police (be they White, Black or White aspiring ethnicities). Thus, the slave catchers and slave patrols on the plantation in the antebellum era were the very prototypes of the law enforcement officers of today who feel that if a Black person resists their orders to submit their bodies totally to inspection and/or if a Black person refuses to constrict their personality to display complete docility and deference, then these police officers feel they have a right to shoot and kill that Black person with no recrimination, accountability, or even loss of pay. Any Black resistance to White authority is a threat and the great fear of the White majority.
In this early scene, Parker seems to demonstrate in a historical context that the deliberate economic oppression of Black people constructed and maintained by the dominant White society and its institutions contribute to the “crimes of survival” committed by Blacks that are then used against Blacks as both a justification for their inferiority and the need to execute and/or reduce Blacks to slave status by imprisonment. All of these “legal” judgments, processes and procedures against Black people are adjudicated by Whites and non-White sympathizers comfortably ensconced in their seats of power and privilege. In another scene a runaway Black slave’s dead body is left on the side of the road as a symbol of White power, evoking the sickening image of Michael Brown’s dead body left uncovered for hours on the road, under the hot August sun in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, as a stark symbol of White power in our times.
"The Birth of a Nation" (Fox Searchlight)
And finally, I will call "The Birth of a Nation" a masterpiece not only because it uses the past as a lens through which to view the present, but also because it uses an unsuccessful past effort of Black collective liberation as a road map to a successful Black collective effort of liberation in the future. Now am I suggesting that we will one day have to rise up ‘en masse’ in a bloody racial rebellion to truly have equality in this country? Time (or maybe this year’s Presidential election) will tell. But if we look at the film’s final shot of a young slave boy turned into a man as a Northern soldier fighting against the Confederate army during the Civil War, the film seems to urge us to not give up on our youth who may not see the errors of their ways at this moment, but who will, once the planted seed has had time to flourish, one day go forth and continue the fight for equality and freedom for Black people. The careful and nearly dialogue free attention paid to the youngest member of Nat Turner’s insurrectionist army is held up to us as a complex symbol of today’s youth, with its cultural leaders like rapper Lil’ Wayne who, in a recent interview, doesn’t think that racism exists anymore, and their emphasis on materialism and pleasure.(4) This youth in "The Birth of a Nation" must’ve decided at some point that he had to continue the fight for liberation even after his previous actions seemed to be an effort to thwart it. The film ends on a hopeful message which is even more powerful, considering that it is a film based on an event that ended in failure.
Ultimately, "The Birth of a Nation" is a tale of patriotism; a “give us liberty or give us death” ethos told from a subaltern racial point-of-view. When the other men join Turner’s insurrectionist army, they do so because, what do they really have to lose that hasn’t already been taken from them? The hangman’s noose becomes the ultimate symbol of freedom in a land of unmitigated racial oppression and inhumanity. If it is true what philosopher G.W. F. Hegel has told us that the Master is a master over the slave because he does not fear death, then Nat Turner and his comrades have shown that to rebel against such oppression, slaves must not fear death because their identity was not dependent upon their status as slaves, but instead upon their status as men. (5)
In conclusion I’d like to address a recent article in The Nation by Dr. Leslie M. Alexander who tells us that, ”The Birth of a Nation is an Epic Fail,” because, ”Nearly everything in the movie is a complete fabrication.” (6) One has to wonder where Dr. Alexander's sharp eye for historical inaccuracies was when "The Free State of Jones" came out last June. In any case, the real question regarding her attack of the film is, ”Why is it an epic fail when a Black filmmaker takes dramatic license with historical events, but White directors are often lauded for their diligence at making history 'more' dramatic to the modern (read: White) spectator?” Even though the director, Gary Ross, was admonished by critics (including yours truly) for the historical inaccuracies in "The Free State of Jones," the film itself was not called an epic fail just because of these inaccuracies. What we have here regarding Dr. Alexander’s criticism of "The Birth of a Nation" is the selective application of a double standard which reveals the deep aesthetic segregation that exists between how Black filmmakers and Black films are judged, and how White filmmakers and White films are judged. Is it that we’ve grown so accustomed to White filmmakers white-washing history and removing people of color from the stage of historical progress that we refuse to extend the right of dramatic license to Black filmmakers? (7)
Two wrongs may not make a right, but a double standard surely makes fools of us all. Knowing that no cinematic representation could ever be 100% historically accurate, I would argue that Dr. Alexander’s criticism is really just another form of this aesthetic segregation against Black filmmakers writ large as film criticism. As long as Whites are changing the representation of history for dramatic purposes, only a minority of critics complain; but when a Black filmmaker makes changes to the representation of history for dramatic purposes, all of a sudden, one’s entire film is a “fabrication”.
In truth, I find Dr. Leslie Alexander’s complaints against "The Birth of a Nation" to be a thinly veiled attack against the director Nate Parker and his acquittal of rape charges 17 years ago, rather than any kind of meaningful criticism of the film itself. Only in America can you be a Black man acquitted of a crime and still be held morally accountable for it decades later; but a White police officer can murder a Black man in cold blood and not be held accountable criminally or morally for the act at all - whether or not it has been captured on camera. This is not a false equivalency, this is a statement against a broken justice system within a racially prejudiced society that considers all Black men guilty until proven innocent, and if that system can’t find the Black man guilty then the society attaches the stigma of guilt to the Black man to continue to besmirch his innocence and question his moral character. That some Blacks themselves are even joining in the besmirching of Nate Parker’s character after his acquittal, reveals the depth of our own internalized oppression. Do we let the White man go because it’s his system, but punish the Black man with impunity because it’s his fault he’s trapped in the White man’s system?
If it is just not possible in the art form of cinema for any film to be 100% historically accurate, then we should be judging the film not only by what it intends to represent, but also by the themes it explores and its dramatic execution and integrity. And to my eye, Nate Parker and all those who have worked on the film, "The Birth of a Nation", have triumphed at bringing this much talked about, but still obscured historical event of Black collective rebellion and resistance to slavery to the screen. Bravo!
Andre Seewood is author of “(Dismantling) the Greatest Lie Ever Told to the Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here.
(1) Here I am leaning heavily upon the work of religious scholar, John Dominic Crossan and his discussion of Jesus as a revolutionary figure spreading a radical message in antiquity. Crossan asserts that,” The open commensality and radical egalitarianism of Jesus’ Kingdom of God are more terrifying than anything we have ever imagined, and even if we can never accept it, we should not explain it away as something else.” (pg. 74, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, HarperCollins: New York, 1994)
(2) Pier Paolo Pasolini is quoted as clearly seeing Christ as a revolutionary figure: “Anyone,” said Pasolini,” Who walks up to a couple of people and says, ‘Drop your nets and follow me,’ is a total revolutionary. Convinced that Christ must always be seen as a figure of rebellion and scandal, Pasolini felt that St. Matthew in particular rendered him “inflexible… overwhelming, without a moment of rest or peace.” (pg. 77, Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy by Naomi Greene, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1990.)
(3) Slaves had to take the last names of their masters as a means of extending the aristocratic legacy of slaveholders beyond the Civil War and even now in the present day.
(4) Please see article: Lil Wayne Thinks Racism is Over Because Millennials... http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/entertainthis/2016/09/14/lil-wayne-thinks-racism-is-over-because-millennials/90347466/
(5) This is the Master-Slave dialectic better referred to as the Lordship and Bondage dynamic in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
(6) Please see the article: The Birth of a Nation is an Epic Fail by Dr. Leslie M. Alexander. https://www.thenation.com/article/the-birth-of-a-nation-is-an-epic-fail/
(7) If we remember the furor over the diminished role of the character of President Lyndon Johnson in DuVernay’s SELMA (2014) and how White historians were attempting to trash the entire film because they did find it historically accurate in how the film gave more dramatic attention to the Black character of Martin Luther King, than to the character of Pres. Johnson, then one can say that the real issue in this negative criticism of SELMA and Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is the degree of Whiteness that must be placed within a historical Black film for White critics and historians to feel comfortable enough to judge the film as adequate in upholding the status quo and the dominant culture of White supremacy.