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the_birth_of_a_nation_2016_filmLUMPENPROLETARIAT—It seemed strange to see this title as an option this evening at the movies.  Of course, the original, racist, Ku Klux Klan propaganda film comes to mind when one sees this title come up in this new 2016 film.  But this film is no nostalgic updating of D.W. Griffith‘s 1915 silent epic drama film, The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman).

Birth of a Nation (2016), a powerful reclaiming of history and a courageous confrontation with historical truth, gives American families and friends and neighbors an opportunity for truth and reconciliation around some of the horrors of our collective past.  Rather than proselytise white supremacy, as in the 1915 iteration, this film makes a remarkable argument for emancipatory violence in a climate of institutionalised violence.  This film raises many provocative questions and challenges the humanity in all of us.  And it is a fine work of cinema, with superb acting, cinematography, and direction.  This is a must-see film.  Take a friend or a loved one; and, then, most importantly, talk about it honestly.  Birth of a Nation (2016) is in theatres now. [1]


Birth of a Nation (2016) trailer


Of course, there will be diverse responses to Nate Parker’s final cut of Birth of a Nation (2016).  It’s good to get different perspectives.



The Historical Fiction of The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker’s film uses cinematic tropes that may obscure the true complexity of Nat Turner’s legend.

04:45 EDT

Vann R. Newkirk II

Why is Nat Turner’s story necessary?

It’s a question that’s often subtly animated an ongoing debate about Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation, which tells a version of Turner’s infamous 1831 slave revolt in Virginia.  While it shouldn’t enter conversations about Parker’s acquittal of sexual assault charges and his subsequent comments about the case, the question of Turner’s importance has lingered after The Birth of a Nation’s struggles at the box office.  Some of the film’s most ardent advocates have charged that its problems result from plots among black feminists to harpoon the work of a duly acquitted man.  More reasonably, some reviewers and supporters have called the film necessary viewing in spite of its creator.  But those who defend The Birth of a Nation share a common concern: Does the movie’s underperformance somehow damage the underlying story of Turner and his rebellion?

Most of the movie’s defenders believe that Turner’s story carries a unique, overriding weight in black culture, whether for its historical significance or as a sort of animating founding legend of black resistance, and that Parker’s film does a prima facie service in telling such a vital account.  Whether The Birth of a Nation actually carries that burden, and whether it can be appreciated in spite of the besmirchment of its creator, depends on understanding the phenomenon of Nat Turner himself and what he has come to symbolize.  The main problem with figuring out that phenomenon is that so much of the Turner we know is historical fiction, an impenetrable legendarium of many things that cannot be verified.

Even before Turner was hanged, the story of his rebellion had spread far and wide as propaganda, both among slavers and the enslaved.  For some, Turner and a roving band of rapist ruffians attacked white women in the most bestial of ways.  For others, General Nat led a glorious armed revolution that still maintained hidden legions in the Virginia woods years after his capture.  These disparate visions were aided by the fact that as an enslaved person, Turner saw his history, visage, and biographical details intentionally erased, even as they were formed.

Much of modern knowledge about Turner descends from these legends and a few shaky sources.  The primary source with the most information about Turner himself is a firsthand account from the lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray, called The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia.  The problem with that document, which was based on purported conversations between Turner and Gray, is that those conversations may or may not have actually happened and are not mentioned in the court of record, despite Gray’s claims.

The novel based on that document, William Styron’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, is completely a work of historical fiction.  Taking its skeleton from an already questionable source with limited scope, Styron wove a fascinating, impossibly omniscient yarn about Turner’s life and inner motivations that was promptly criticized by many black writers and intellectuals for missing too many historical marks and reinforcing negative stereotypes.  Nevertheless, that novel and its source material probably form the bulk of modern popular knowledge about Nat Turner and his 1831 revolt in Virginia.

There’s nothing wrong or uncommon about the transformation of historical tidbits into legend; the legend of America’s birth is what tills fertile ground for works of art like Hamilton.  But historical fictions often carry political messages beyond the basic facts of the historical record.  The legend of Turner’s rebellion in many black households carries an inspirational message of agency, expressed through violence, and genius that belies the popular slavery myths of dumb, contented enslaved people who were brought civilization by white people.


Learn more at THE ATLANTIC.


Underground Radio hosted Professor Griff for a film review of Birth of a Nation (2016) directed by Nate Parker. (Interview published 13 OCT 2016.)



How ‘Important’ Is The Birth of a Nation Really?

It’s the latest slavery narrative to receive critical and popular attention, but Nate Parker’s film isn’t the original powerhouse many hoped it would be.

7 OCT 2016

Gillian B. White

One of the words most commonly used to describe Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is “important.”  The word seemed less fraught when the movie, which tells the story of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, debuted to notable acclaim at Sundance early this year.  But it took on a different feel when college rape allegations against Parker and his co-writer for the film emerged during promotion for the movie. And then again when news broke that the alleged victim killed herself in 2012. “Important,” now, is being deployed to help sway those who remain critical of or conflicted about Parker, The Birth of a Nation’s writer, director, and star.

Amid the strong criticism of Parker that’s ensued, there have been many calls to prioritize the significance of the movie over any personal feelings about the filmmaker. Again and again, cast members, critics, and supporters have suggested both explicitly and implicitly that The Birth of a Nation should be seen because it’s an “important” work.  But what exactly makes a film required viewing despite personal ambivalence or objection?  What does “important” mean?

The Birth of a Nation is important insofar as any narrative about slavery, race, or other parts of America’s dark past is.  Films in this tradition are valuable because they demand a continued reckoning with a history that’s too easy to forget or gloss over, and they also explore how the impact of that past continues into the present.  But the fact that The Birth of a Nation is representatively important as a movie doesn’t mean that it’s good cinema, or even a necessary addition to the genre of stories about slavery.

One oft-cited meaningful feature of the film is its historical grounding in one of the bloodiest slave rebellions on record: Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia, which resulted in the deaths of over 50 white people and the subsequent killing of hundreds of blacks as retribution.  The Birth of a Nation doesn’t spare its audience the powerful and disturbing images of beatings, force feedings, and a litany of other atrocities that supposedly motivated Turner’s rebellion.  Nor should it.  But aside from its status as one of the deadliest, there’s not a widespread consensus among historians that Turner’s uprising had critical, long-lasting consequences for the institution of slavery or the people who benefited from it.

Further, little is actually known about Turner himself aside from a few sparse historical accounts and the confessional he wrote prior to his execution—a document that deserves scrutiny since it was produced by a white attorney during Turner’s confinement and published after Turner’s death.  This knowledge vacuum would make it difficult for a filmmaker (or anyone) to fill in the blanks about Turner’s life and motivations without significant editorializing.  And Parker does editorialize, choosing to include scenes and tropes that viewers may bristle at: at least two instances of the brutalization and rape of black women and the portrayal of Turner as the constant, morally unambiguous hero.


Learn more at THE ATLANTIC.



Grappling With The Birth of a Nation

Tipped as an early Oscar frontrunner, the film has been clouded with controversy in recent months.

6 OCT 2016

Christopher Orr

Rarely have a film’s apparent fortunes fallen so far so quickly.  At Sundance this year, The Birth of a Nation, a film documenting the 1831 slave uprising led by Nat Turner, won both the grand jury and audience awards, earned its writer-director-star Nate Parker a standing ovation before the movie even screened, and sold for a festival record of $17.5 million.  Since then, however, the film’s critical and commercial prospects have taken a decisive hit, from presumed Oscar frontrunner to borderline cinematic pariah.

Over the summer, the news broke widely that Parker had been charged with rape while he was a student at Penn State in 1999.  Although he was acquitted at trial in 2001, his co-defendant, Jean Celestin (who is also the co-writer of The Birth of a Nation), was convicted in a ruling that was later overturned.  Not long after, it emerged that the alleged victim had committed suicide in 2012.  Many have found Parker’s subsequent responses to questioning on the subject inadequate.

To what degree should we judge a film by its author?  How is it that the backlash against Parker, a black filmmaker, has been so much swifter than those against—to cite two obvious examples—Woody Allen and Roman Polanski?  These are thorny questions, and I can only recommend that potential viewers grapple with them as best they can.


Learn more at THE ATLANTIC.


TIME—[12 SEP 2016]

Why You Should See The Birth of a Nation, No Matter How You Feel About Nate Parker

Punishment by refusal can’t rewrite the past

12 SEP 2016

Stephanie Zacharek

Movies, and sometimes the people who make them, work on us at strange, subterranean levels we can’t even begin to comprehend.  That’s why, even though relatively few people have seen it, few know quite how to feel about Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, which premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday to a rousing response from the audience, some seven months after its sensational Sundance unveiling.  Parker’s debut picture—about Nat Turner, the enslaved African American who led a violent revolt against slave owners in 1831—is distinctive for one notable reason: Movies about the history of blacks in this country are rarely made, and if you rule out the usual suspects like Spike Lee and Lee Daniels—and count back to the days before 12 Years a Slave and Selma—they have rarely been made by people of color.  But months ahead of its release in the United States, in October, The Birth of a Nation has also become infamous for a thornier reason:  In 1999, while they were students at Penn State University, Parker and his roommate and wrestling teammate Jean Celestin—cowriter of The Birth of a Nation—were accused of raping a fellow student.  Parker was acquitted.  Celestin was found guilty, though the verdict was overturned.  Their accuser committed suicide in 2012.  In the context of this terrible blot, should Parker be lauded as a filmmaker?  Should people show tacit support of him and his actions by seeing the film?  Is his work, or his view on anything, in any way trustworthy?

Anyone who believes he or she will find true gratification in refusing to buy a ticket to The Birth of a Nation should probably stay away.  But this sort of punishment by refusal can’t rewrite the past, and it suggests that closing ourselves off from a movie is a bold way to engage with the world, when in fact, it’s the opposite.  The Birth of a Nation isn’t a great movie—it’s hardly even a good one.  But it’s bluntly effective, less a monumental piece of filmmaking than an open door.  Parker stars as Nat Turner, and his performance is grounded and thoughtful—he may be a better actor than he is as a director.  The Birth of a Nation works best when its story is told most simply, without too many strained poetic images—at one point, after a devastating event, Parker’s camera closes in on an ear of corn that begins seeping blood, an unnecessary blast of symbolism that tells us nothing, other than that a beginning filmmaker is being a showoff.

But there are discrete moments in The Birth of a Nation that speak to all sorts of things we “know” as Americans, but in an elemental way that makes us see them anew.  We watch a group of well wishers surround bride and groom Hark and Esther (Colman Domingo and Gabrielle Union), their overwhelming warmth the essence of community.  Later, Esther will be dragged away to provide a night’s entertainment for a white man—though for us, as viewers, the real horror is the aftermath, when she emerges from the plantation house in her nightgown, her face showing an inability to process the horror of what she’s just experienced, as her husband opens his arms to her.


Learn more at TIME.



Why the Debate Over Nate Parker Is So Complex

The discussion over how to parse the filmmaker in light of a sexual-assault trial 17 years ago is particularly difficult for black women.

21 AUG 2016

Morgan Jerkins

At first, it seemed as though Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation couldn’t have come at a better time.  In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite activism and the rapid expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement, a film about Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion that examined the history and power of black liberation seemed to be just the story America needed to see.  When Fox Searchlight purchased the global rights to the movie at the Sundance Film Festival for $17.5 million—a new record for the event—Parker’s ascendancy seemed unstoppable.  Excitement rose among black filmgoers for the film’s October release, while Parker seemed like a significant new presence in both the film and activism worlds.  Unfortunately, the promise of both him and his movie appears now to be too good to be true.

Over the past few weeks, debate has swirled around the fact that Parker was accused of raping a female student in 1999 along with his writing partner on The Birth of a Nation, Jean Celestin, while all three were enrolled at Penn State.  The victim also stated that both Parker and Celestin continually harassed her after she reported the crime.  In 2001, Parker was acquitted on the grounds that he and the woman had had sexual relations before the alleged rape.  Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison, but he appealed, and the case was dismissed in 2005.  This week, Variety reported that the woman involved killed herself in 2012, at the age of 30.

Within the black community, these revelations have provoked sharp debate and sour feelings.  Parker’s movie concerns itself with black liberation, but the question of who gets to be the herald of this mobilization has long been a contested issue.  In this sense, Parker’s personal life is inextricable from the message of The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner is a symbol of liberation through rebellion and Nate Parker has chosen himself to be the vessel through which to tell this story.  But the revelations around his personal history illuminate the extent to which this liberation isn’t and hasn’t been equal for black men and women.  Parker’s history of Nat Turner revolves around a particularly powerful presentation of black masculinity—one that reflects how the subject of liberation so often puts black women in a difficult bind.


Learn more at THE ATLANTIC.


[1]  GONZO:  My family and I decided to get out to the movies this evening, on an easy Saturday.  And of the available choices, we decided on Birth of a Nation.  My 11-year-old son wanted me to see The Magnificent Seven because he really enjoyed it and was certain that I would enjoy it as well.  I had voted for Birth of a Nation.  And, out of a series of twists and turns of fate, we ended up watching Birth of a Nation.

But I wanted my son to watch this because it looked like it might be a somewhat honest historical portrait of slavery in the United States, such that he could have an opportunity to appreciate our American heritage for all of its good and bad.  I’m not sure our kids are getting the same level of sociopolitical consciousness in class, as us older generations got back in the 1980s and ’90s, when the nation’s educators, particularly in the SF Bay Area, were still significantly influenced by the idealism of 1960s.

Even today, a movie, such as this one, which should be a clear wake-up call against the white supremacy upon, which this nation has been built, and upon which presidential platforms are still being built, is still controversial.  That’s all the more reason to see this film, mindfully, and engage with it.

Admittedly, going into this film, I only had a vague recollection of seeing a film trailer about slavery, which promised to provide a sincere, contemporary depiction of the realities of slavery, brought to life on the big screen.  Even as the film started, I had no clue that the The Birth of a Nation was going to be a telling of the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt against slavery.  Later to learn that the film was, indeed, directed by the lead actor in the film, Nate Parker, is even more impressive, as it is a rare case of a black man in Hollywood telling a story about black people.  Given that fact, as well as the competent production of the film with superb acting, it’s not surprising that many critics have allowed themselves to be caught up in the sexual assault charges, for which the film director was acquitted back in 1999.  It seems moralistic fingerpointing, or injecting confounding gender politics, functions to detract from the gravity of the importance of the historical Nat Turner revolt, which defies white supremacist narratives about backwards, docile, or complacent slaves, who didn’t mind their enslavement all that much.  In our critical analysis of a work of art, whether musical, visual, or otherwise, one must separate the art from the artist, as Professor Gustavson used to say in the conservatory.


[Image of Birth of a Nation film poster by source, used via fair use.]

[15 OCT 2016]

[Last modified  19:40 PDT  20 OCT 2016]