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Nat Turner: Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker as “Nat Turner” in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Jahi Chikwendiu/FOX Searchlight

Difficult ‘Birth’

How the troubling gender politics of Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ were sidelined by two years of #OscarsSoWhite

Back in January, Nate Parker was The Savior.

Anointed with prizes by both the audience and the Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury, The Birth of a Nation writer, director and producer himself was going to be the force that delivered us from a third straight season of #OscarsSoWhite with a daring film that told the story of Nat Turner and the bloody slave rebellion he led in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.

That momentum, as an awards season favorite, came to a halt when rape allegations against Parker and the man with whom he shares a story credit on The Birth of a Nation, Jean Celestin, resurfaced in August. Parker and Celestin were roommates and wrestling teammates at Penn State University. They were both accused of raping a woman in 1999, and tried for it. Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty and served jail time, but his conviction was overturned on appeal when the accuser refused to testify in a new trial. The accuser committed suicide in 2012.

In August, the American Film Institute (AFI) decided to postpone a screening and Q&A session with Parker originally scheduled for Aug. 26. AFI was the first organization to nix an event with Parker since Deadline Hollywood published an interview with him, accompanied by excerpts of trial transcripts detailing what happened the night the victim accused Parker and Celestin of rape. At the Toronto International Film Festival, where his film was screened in September, Parker avoided answering a question from The New York Times about why he hadn’t apologized to his accuser and her family. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Parker said he would not apologize because he was “falsely accused” and later “vindicated.”

The circumstances surrounding The Birth of a Nation and its creator are a hornet’s nest of racial and gender politics and rape culture. But the rabid reception to the film upon its debut at Sundance in January reveals one of the biggest weaknesses of a cinema culture fueled by art that’s disproportionately straight, white, male and directed at teenage boys. It comes down to the basics of economics: An atmosphere of scarcity teaches us to grab serious, ambitious films such as The Birth of a Nation and treat them as manna in a cultural food desert. Scarcity unfairly becomes part of the context of how we evaluate film. It blinds us, or at least allows us to paper over issues that otherwise might raise red flags.

In the case of The Birth of a Nation, that meant that the film’s onion paper-thin female characters didn’t become much of an issue — not until the faults in their construction could be used as evidence pointing to Parker and Celestin’s less-than-evolved attitudes about women.

There haven’t been nearly enough films about slavery because there haven’t been nearly enough well-funded films by and about people of color period. If this wasn’t the case, Parker’s film would have been seen from the start as a promising but faulty debut instead of the awards season horse to which everyone could hitch their carriages. Never mind the fact that “Oscar films” have become their own genre because the criteria for serious consideration has become so narrow and predictable.

One of The Birth of a Nation’s biggest weaknesses is that the film’s female characters are given little consideration in comparison to their male counterparts. None of the female characters have much of a purpose beyond existing to propel Turner’s story forward, from Turner’s wife, Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King), to his mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis). The most egregious example, however, is that of an unnamed character with no lines, played by Gabrielle Union. After she marries another slave, one of Turner’s friends and later co-conspirators, Union’s character is raped by a guest of the slaveholding Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), and this act convinces her husband to join Nat Turner’s rebellion. The entire purpose of Union’s existence in the film is to be raped. Similarly, the brutal gang rape of Cherry Ann early in the movie serves as motivation for Turner.

Nate Parker as "Nat Turner" and Aja Naomi King as "Cherry" in THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Aja Naomi King as Cherry in The Birth of a Nation.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

At the beginning of September, Union, a sexual assault survivor, published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times where she addressed her character’s silence head-on. In the following weeks, Union became the face of the film because Parker’s role in promoting it was so compromised.

“I took this role because I related to the experience,” Union wrote. “I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been, and continue to be, violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor.”

While Union’s words are not to be taken lightly, what’s especially disturbing, aside from the way the rape of female slaves is treated singularly as character motivation, is that the depiction of the trauma of the rape of enslaved women is squarely focused on how it affects the men around them, not the women themselves.

The problem with The Birth of a Nation‘s female characters are symptomatic of larger problems within the film industry when it comes to women: They are underrepresented on screen and behind the camera, below the line and above it. The result is that flimsy female characters are so commonplace that they tend to get written off as a sort of benign, expected level of filmic sexism hardly worth mentioning. In considering a Very Important Film About Race such as The Birth of the Nation, they become collateral damage.

Early on in The Birth of a Nation, Parker establishes himself as a savior by convincing Samuel Turner to buy Cherry Ann in an effort to save her from other leering white would-be owners, who would most certainly rape her. The Birth of a Nation follows the typical arc of a classic hero’s tale, which is unsurprising given how much influence Braveheart director and star Mel Gibson had over Parker and the script. But Braveheart, however much of a classic it may be, was released in 1995. The Birth of a Nation exists in and benefits from a media culture that’s been heavily influenced by Black Lives Matter. In fact, it’s arguably because of Black Lives Matter that a film that tells the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt is welcomed as vital and important in the first place.

But the first iterations of The Birth of a Nation — a passion project that took Parker at least seven years to make, and for which he raised the money himself to ensure creative control — predated the 2014 death of Michael Brown and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. That also means the script predated the birth of a new intersectional civil rights movement, which is defined in part by its deliberate emphasis on the rights and contributions of women and queer black people.

In that sense, the construction of The Birth of a Nation runs parallel to that of the old Great Man theory model of the 1960s civil rights movement, not today’s decentralized efforts modeled after the thinking of Ella Baker. The Birth of a Nation is a starring vehicle for Parker, meant to propel him and his career, but that also means that the female characters in the film largely exist to serve the stories of the male characters, especially Nat Turner.

Until August, Parker was a beneficiary of the energy and politics of a new civil rights movement. His film, on the other hand, remained steeped in the methods of the old one.

In the months since his crowning at Sundance, Parker has been on something of a “savior tour,” not only traveling the festival circuit, but funding his own eponymous film school at Wiley College in Texas.

In January, against the snowy, mountainous backdrop of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Parker’s brio, his nerve, was intoxicating. This was a man who had decided to walk right up to the legacy of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist propaganda film — the one that inspired the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, the one that fixed the image of black men as rapists and predatory brutes with a unslakable thirst for white female virtue — and burn it to the ground.

The new Birth of a Nation, the one that threatened to eventually push Griffith’s film into the second and third pages of Google search results and thus internet obscurity, would be a story of resistance and revenge. It was a story in which a black man got to split a white slave owner’s head open with a hatchet.

The timing was perfect.

Days before The Birth of a Nation’s premiere, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominations for the 2016 Oscars. Not a single person of color had been nominated in the acting categories. “WHERE’S THE DIVERSITY?” screeched the Los Angeles Times on its front page, filled with the headshots of the 20 white people who’d been deemed the crème de la crème.

Parker, 36, was rewarded on the film’s premiere night at Eccles Theater with a standing ovation before a single minute of the film had yet to play, with cheers and whoops from the film’s mostly white audience when Nat Turner began his murderous rampage, and another thunderous standing ovation that lasted from the moment the film ended until the credits finished rolling.

The narrative was set. Even if nothing else remotely Oscar-worthy starring people of color was released for the rest of the year, there was The Birth of a Nation. That was the night Parker stopped being an actor from The Great Debaters and Beyond the Lights and became The Savior.

“ ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is better than any 2016 Oscar nom; journalists complicit in #OscarsSoWhite best write about it all year,” one entertainment journalist tweeted from Sundance.

The film’s shoddy treatment of black women simply didn’t register, not in a way that merited serious objection.

The Birth of a Nation was just too important.

Parker’s The Birth of a Nation will almost certainly not be winning any Oscars next year.

That’s OK.

Parker is not The Savior because this year, as should be the case every year, there is no need for one. There is no need to hang the Oscar hopes and dreams upon the shoulders of one man because this is a year that’s rich with possibility for artists of color in film. This awards season doesn’t have to be about the presence or absence of Parker and his film, thanks to the work of Barry Jenkins’ exquisite meditation on black masculinity, tales of love in times of prejudice from Ruth Negga, David Oyelowo and Amma Asante, and the exuberant joy of Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer. The loss of The Birth of a Nation isn’t synonymous with another year of #OscarsSoWhite, thanks to Denzel Washington and Viola Davis keeping the work of August Wilson alive with an adaptation of Fences and Will Smith continuing to strive with Collateral Beauty.

There are options.

Here’s the thing: The dearth of people of color — in filmmaking, in festival audiences, in criticism — harms the entire cultural ecosystem. Scarcity makes it almost impossible to divorce the stakes of failure or success from seeing a work clearly.

Thank goodness, this Oscar season, Parker doesn’t have to be The Savior. Thank goodness he’s competing against a bevy of other films by and about people of color that are just as good or better, because every year, that’s how it should be.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.