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Merits of ‘The Birth of Nation’ shouldn’t be obscured by rape controversy

Social media vitriol changed the conversation about the movie before we really could assess it

The first time I saw The Birth of a Nation was at a first-look premiere screening last spring, months before its nationwide release and months before sexual assault charges against Nate Parker and Jean Celestin resurfaced. Aware that the little we know about Nat Turner’s rebellion is through his Confessions to Thomas R. Gray, I had no expectations of historical accuracy.

At best, a film about Turner could be crafted from indefatigable research and purposeful imagination. I was unmoved by the Sundance hype and had modest expectations for the film. I opted to see it not because I believed it would somehow be different from most films on slavery, but because the work I do in African-American literature and culture requires me to be attentive to cultural productions.

I was pleasantly surprised when, from the opening scene to the last, the film compelled me. There was no white savior a la Twelve Years a Slave. There was no bait and switch, as in Amistad, in which the story of rebellion cedes its eminence to a story about the goodness of white people willing to act on behalf of wrongly enslaved Africans. And there was no gratuitously violent but lighthearted tale of vengeance in the tradition of Django Unchained. No, The Birth of a Nation was different. It told the story of a self-determined community in violent rebellion, without apology, and without the requisite Hollywood white benefactor. Importantly, too, it did work of upending the racist mythology of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, and of reorienting the American narrative of freedom and liberty.

Fast-forward to Aug. 12. In an apparent attempt to minimize the damage of what had been a slow-burning story, Parker denies being guilty of sexual assault but treats the matter with far too little sensitivity. Despite public relations spin, the controversy is overbearing. By the time cast member Gabrielle Union, who still supports the film, chimes in as a rape survivor, dialogue about the film is consumed by vitriol for Parker and Celestin. Then Variety publishes Sharon Loeffler’s letter claiming that The Birth of a Nation was an insult to her sister’s memory by centralizing rape in the film.

Gabrielle Union as "Esther" and Colman Domingo as “Hark” in THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

Gabrielle Union as Esther and Colman Domingo as Hark in The Birth of a Nation.

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu

But Loeffler’s perception is blurred at best. Even as The Birth of a Nation has two “rape scenes” (not one as her letter suggests), neither is at the center of the film. Both occur off camera. So when she calls for Fox Searchlight to “remove those scenes altogether,” does she mean to imply that all murmurings of rape in the film should be silenced, or does that apply only to those scenes in which Parker casts himself as the avenging hero?

What, then, are we to do with the reality that rape was a notorious feature of slavery? Must its function be shrunk to that of creating sympathy for Turner and motive for the insurrection? If so, absent of rape, would slavery have been tolerable, thereby making the desire for freedom less intense?

My point here is not to be reductionist; on the contrary, I want us to consider the knottiness of Loeffler’s comments and the ways they categorically frame the subsequent critical discourse around the film — redirecting our gaze from a community determined to liberate itself from enslavement to seductive ruminations on gender politics that unequivocally require divestment from community. This isn’t to say that the politics of community and gender are irreconcilable. It is to say, however, that disingenuous fixations on gender politics, more often than not, have been propagated at the expense of careful examinations of The Birth of a Nation‘s many layered discourses — the most critical of which, ironically, is its deconstruction of one of America’s great founding myths that no white woman is safe from black male molestation. In this age of untamed racism, none of its discourses, including those interested foremost in interrogating black masculinity anew, can afford to go unremarked upon.

Critics and scholars alike who read The Birth of a Nation through the narrow lens of its portrayal of black women miss the forest and the trees. Leslie Alexander, for example, ends her commentary about the film with a call for “movies that show how spirituality and African culture helped enslaved people’s resiliency during slavery, particularly their ability to celebrate family and community.” Somehow, she misses the African iconography and cosmologies apparent to the perceptive eye. Blending Christianity with West African traditions to approximate wellness in the community, The Birth of a Nation is precisely the kind of film she calls for. Such narrow, decontextualized critiques are dangerous. In this case, they denigrate the film’s abiding concern with community, even amid the tale of a hero, and they ignore the varied events that led up to the fictional Turner’s decision to foment a rebellion.

Despite the abundance of criticism that suggests otherwise, rape alone doesn’t spur rebellion in The Birth of a Nation. The opening scene makes clear that ancestors recognize the gift of Turner’s spirit. When young Nat steals a book, we know he understands the relation of literacy to the freedom he seeks. He’s unflinchingly irreverent to a white man who attempts to strike him for talking to the man’s wife to return a doll to their child. He’s devastated by the horrid treatment of other enslaved Africans on a plantation he visits as an itinerant preacher. When he sees two girls playing together, where the black girl is on a leash as if she were the white girl’s pet dog, his spirit is wounded.

With the community watching, he is beaten badly for baptizing a white man and for challenging his master and the white preacher’s authority. Having resumed his work in the fields after recovering from the beating, he comes home to find his grandmother dead. All of these things and others fuel the rebellion. Flashbacks and Turner’s remarks before the men strike make this clear: “We straightened our backs against the stance of the evil one.” Each denigrating experience is a part of the whole, not an isolated, instantaneous act that incites rage and rouses a thirst for revenge.

The ubiquity of social media and its technologies has forever changed public discourse concerning black cultural productions. The ease and speed with which “think pieces” appear and are shared inevitably beg the question: Are the days of the “serious” critic who mediates intelligently for her audience gone? As one who appreciates the ways social media and digital resources equalize discourse, particularly for communities of color, I would never promote so-called traditional criticism at the expense of popular discourse. One can and must enliven the other. But when one compromises the other, endangering our understanding of art’s role in helping us see the self in relation to community, we risk missing the liberative promise in artistic productions such as The Birth of a Nation at a moment when we desperately need a clear path to freedom.

Dana A. Williams is Professor of African American Literature and Chair of the Department of English at Howard University. @dwill5