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Troubled legacy: a review of Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’

Friday, October 14, 2016 20:22
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by Wanda Sabir

Perhaps the reason why Nat Turner is almost completely buried within documented and oral histories is connected to the fear his rebellion caused in the Southampton and by extension the Southern antebellum community. Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” visits this story as Donald Trump draws a white male constituency very much in keeping philosophically with the angry mob who tear the flesh from the iconic Prophet Nat Turner’s body.

Nate Parker as Nat Turner marries Aja Naomi King as Cherry in “Birth of a Nation.”

Nate Parker as Nat Turner marries Aja Naomi King as Cherry in “Birth of a Nation.”

Parker’s “Birth” unearths a taboo. He pulls the sheets off mirrors and opens the doors to a Big House where he leans over vomiting out all things he has had to swallow since captivity.

Yet, with this purging comes personal consequences for the director. Nate Parker’s life is held against an ethical microscope and found wanting.

Would Nat Turner object to Nate Parker’s embodiment? While an imprisoned Nat Turner is interrogated by his court appointed attorney, Thomas Gray, whose edited transcription appears as “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1831), another white writer takes this document and writes a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967), where he inserts a fictitious white woman into the Turner narrative.

This tampering with history is widely contested by the Black community in the book, “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond” (1968), by John Henrik Clarke, Lerone Bennett Jr., Alvin F. Poussaint, Vincent Harding, John Oliver Killens, John A. Williams, Ernest Kaiser, Loyle Hairston, Charles V. Hamilton and Mike Thelwell.

Parker’s “Birth” unearths a taboo. He pulls the sheets off mirrors and opens the doors to a Big House where he leans over vomiting out all things he has had to swallow since captivity.

All Black men want white women, right? This is the dangling carrot which proved deadly to 19-year-old Nate Parker. There is no such thing as consensual sex between a Black man and a white woman. If the scale tips and her consent evaporates, the Black lover is charged and imprisoned.

Parker stated “[i]n his statement to [Pennsylvania] University [that Detective] Weaver told him that he was a former collegiate athlete himself and knew the temptations to sleep with a ‘sports groupie.’ [Parker] also claimed the detective then threatened him, ‘You wrestlers for the past 10 years have raped and battered this whole town. I’m going to get you.’”

Litigation sits at the center of both stories, miring the proposed outcome, justice and freedom for Black people.

“The Confessions of Nat Turner,” published after his death, is based on a “confession” Turner gave to his court-appointed lawyer, Thomas Gray, shortly before his execution. Gray later published the document.

The New York Times wrote in 2008: “Styron wrote that the Turner he found in Gray’s text was a ‘dangerous religious lunatic … a psychopathic monster’; rather than expand on the historical record, he chose to write a meditation on history, giving him ‘dimensions of humanity that were almost totally absent in the documentary evidence.’ In the novel, Turner is a young slave brought up as a domestic servant in the household of a wealthy, altruistic plantation owner who decides to teach Turner to read as proof that slaves are capable of ‘cultivation.’ In Styron’s depiction, Turner is pious, even saintly, with no romantic entanglements other than a chaste attachment to a young white woman who secretly holds abolitionist views.”

Rob Sloan, associate editor of Reason.com, writes: “[I]t doesn’t strike me as fair to blame Parker or [Jean] Celestin, [‘Birth of a Nation’ co-writer], for Jennifer’s death. The article notes that Jennifer suffered from bouts of depression even before the alleged rape took place. Before her death, she was confined to a mental institution. She alternately believed she was Satan, or Jesus Christ. She accused her sister of kidnapping her and was clearly suffering from mental illness.”

Litigation sits at the center of both stories, miring the proposed outcome, justice and freedom for Black people.

In Turner’s “Birth of a Nation,” we watch the young, then older Nat Turner (Oct. 2, 1800 – Nov. 11, 1831) witness situations where white men treat other human beings brutally. Despite what he sees on his plantation, where he is taught to read, plays with the young master, then as an adult preaches the Gospel to other enslaved Africans, it is when Turner travels to other Virginia plantations and sees the ill treatment meted out to Black people that he begins to explore other texts in the Bible.

Guided initially by his mistress to study specific texts to the exclusion of others, these texts ones which exhort the captives to obey their cruel masters and rejoice in their pending everlasting lives. It is when Nat reads the entire book, which is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, he learns that unlike the God he had previously called on, there is an aspect to this divine being he’d completely missed.

Nat Turner’s critical reading of the Bible as a gospel of liberation, rather than a tool to justify his people’s enslavement, should have been cause for white Southerners to reflect on their misdeeds and perhaps end this system. Think again.

What Turner faces when brought to the gallows is rage, rage towards this Black beast who dared upset the power dynamic. “Enraged white militias and mobs killed more than 200 Black people in the course of putting down the 48 hour rebellion,” and they are still killing us.[i] The reaction is representative of a larger fear which fuels COINTELPRO from the Hon. Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), to Mumia Abu Jamal and Stanley “Tookie” Williams. All potential Black messiah types continue to be slandered and killed or imprisoned or both.

“Birth of a Nation” comes at a pivotal time in U.S. history: the end of the term for the first Black president, President Obama’s term replete with state sanctioned violence against Black citizens, similar to that experienced during Jim Crow and, prior to this, enslavement.

In a New Yorker magazine review and on a recent 60 Minutes segment, the director’s moral reputation is questioned, his responses inadequate thus discarded despite the case’s dismissal 17 years ago. When I decided to see the film, I hadn’t known of the compelling court documents, which show the victim’s inebriated state and question her ability to consent to a sexual act while unconscious, nor had I read published statements from the victim’s brother and sister.

I hadn’t known she was 18 at the time and suffered depression thereafter resulting two years ago in a successful suicide. I dismissed the unearthing of this case as mere media slander, and I still wonder at the timing – why hasn’t it come up before? I understand why the film is being boycotted by many men and women who base the film’s aesthetic merits on the ethical reputation of its lead actor and director, an unfair or unevenly applied judgment. I will let Nate and Nat battle this one out.[ii]

“Birth of a Nation” comes at a pivotal time in U.S. history: the end of the term for the first Black president, President Obama’s term replete with state sanctioned violence against Black citizens, similar to that experienced during Jim Crow and, prior to this, enslavement.

To his credit, Turner expresses regret and compassion for his accuser when he learns recently of her suicide in 2014 at the age of 30:

“I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.

“I cannot change what has happened. I cannot bring this young woman, who was someone else’s daughter, someone’s sister and someone’s mother back to life …

“I have changed so much since 19. I’ve grown and matured in so many ways and still have more learning and growth to do. I have tried to conduct myself in a way that honors my entire community – and will continue to do this to the best of my ability.

“All of this said, I also know there are wounds that neither time nor words can heal.”

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) and his rebel force at the armory in Jerusalem face an armed militia.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) and his rebel force at the armory in Jerusalem face an armed militia.

In the New Yorker critique, “Birth” is juxtaposed with “12 Years a Slave” (2013) and “D’Jango Unchained,” directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Jamie Foxx (2012). “D’Jango” is a farce, with a wild, wild West trope, the other a film a documentary based on the Solomon Northup story. Its director is Steven Rodney “Steve” McQueen, who is British. It starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Igbo, born in Britain.

The parallels between “Birth” and either of these two films is apparent, as they both look at the story of enslavement; however, the Nat Turner Rebellion illustrated in Parker’s “Birth” is a story of redemption and triumph. In Parker’s skilled hands as director and actor, we see a story never witnessed on screen before.

Perhaps another reason this film is troublesome, according to Professor Leslie M. Alexander, Ph.D., Ohio State University, in a Nation magazine article, is “that [the director] misrepresents Turner and his rebellion, sends insidious messages about slavery and [ignores] the multifaceted roles of Black women in the battle for freedom.”

The scholar, who specializes in 19th century Black culture and historic accuracy in film, states: “Despite Parker’s bluster about Nat Turner’s heroism and his claims to historical accuracy, he failed to provide a truthful rendering of Nat Turner’s life, his rebellion, or the experience of Black people during slavery. As a result, Parker and Jean Celestin pimped Black suffering for financial gain and proved that they have no respect for Black history or for the people who fought for our freedom.”

The $17.5 million deal from Fox Searchlight, the largest deal at the Sundance film festival to date, is a financial coup; however, at what cost, Alexander asks? How much of his soul did Parker relinquish? If we follow the money, does “Birth” lead us in a circular path which ends with Black folks in chains? Maybe not.

The Nat Turner Rebellion illustrated in Parker’s “Birth” is a story of redemption and triumph. In Parker’s skilled hands as director and actor, we see a story never witnessed on screen before.

The heroic “folk hero” Nat Turner “remained in the mouths of Black Virginians [like Cornelia Carney, b. 1838] for generations,” Michigan State historian Vanessa M. Holden states. “Carney was born seven years after the rebellion took place … [and] when Carney gave her interview a century after those violent days, Black Virginians were still facing awful times. A reminder that survival, resistance, and perseverance were possible must not have escaped her. Her father’s survival and Nat Turner’s successful rebellion remained married through a folk expression that an interviewer from the government would put in a book somewhere. Nat Turner, it seems, was still truant and lying out in the minds of Black Virginians.”

Although as a child, Parker hadn’t known of Nat Turner’s residence just an hour’s drive from his Norfolk, Virginia, home or Turner’s historic impact on the region, perhaps such lore lingered unacknowledged in Parker’s psyche? Perhaps his desire to craft an American hero from a Nat Turner archetype is evidence of this? Perhaps Turner has crafted a story quilt only the initiated recognize? If freedom is the goal, then where is that North Star in the patterned landscape Parker designs here? How much of the tapestry is ripped conveniently apart and what is lost in the process?

Audre Lorde calls this altering historic outcomes in a way that restores one’s agency biomythology. Yet, if Parker’s revisioning of this historic scene – the taking of the armory, when in fact the men were captured before, mere manipulation, while at the same time ignoring a network of support a revolt of such magnitude contained, the women, youth and free Blacks – then one has to ask, to what end or for what purpose are such details omitted?

Parker says he marketed the film “on legacy,” but not necessarily Southampton legacy, according to scholar Vanessa Holden.” However, the monetary legacy this film follows includes kinfolk: “Twelve Years a Slave” and “Selma” “absent of Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael and James Forman, [the lineage a] part of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, now looking to shape what the young and potential future Turners might think about rebellion. And not one of that empire’s properties, including the New York Post and Wall Street Journal, have or will offer any assistance to or support for Turner’s political descendants still looking to finish his work,” states Jared Ball, multimedia host, producer, journalist and educator, in “Rebirth of a Nation Within a Nation.”

Holden says, “It is easy to list the details of the historical Southampton Rebellion that Parker did not accurately portray, and there are many such details. But what deserves more critical attention is Parker’s insistence on creating an extraordinary Black male hero. By crafting a narrative that depicts a hero made in his own image, Parker fails to explore two of the most compelling features of the historical Southampton Rebellion: the ordinariness of slavery’s evil and the vast resistive network of ‘heroes’ needed to pull off a violent slave revolt. Slavery was awful. It was not only awful on some plantations or in some households or at the hands of a few purely evil masters. It was awful in even the most everyday moments in an enslaved man, woman, or child’s life. All of the enslaved people who survived under the slave regime did so because they resisted slavery every day. That is why Cornelia Carney saw Nat Turner in her father and her father in Nat Turner. In the folk tradition where ‘Ole Nat’ survived, Nat Turner was not one slave but every slave.”

He was the hope enslaved Africans dreamed of.

In an age when historic realities can be doctored and/or created in the studio or on a laptop, then presented as fact, it makes one question the validity or usefulness of staging Nat Turner’s story in 2016 inaccurately when a more accurate depiction might have been more powerful, but maybe not marketable in a white supremacist marketplace.

Lots of Black people suffer in Parker’s “Birth,” the victory short lived in comparison. The moment of glory fleeting – a signature American flag at its close with a child who portrays Nat Turner now a Union soldier battling against the system of slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation makes insurrection legal now.

Is Parker saying with this ending to a spliced epic that it’s okay to revolt when the government is on your side? Look how long this union lasted. The ink had barely dried on the page before Reconstruction was over and the soldiers in the South returned to the North and slavery returned in the guise of Black Codes and Jim Crow.

Lots of Black people suffer in Parker’s “Birth,” the victory short lived in comparison.

Black men are shown in “Birth” caring for their families, yet unable to protect them from violation. When Nat has to resist an urge to avenge his wife’s violation, his restraint shows a larger vision for an emancipated or free people. Revenge would have briefly satisfied just one man, and benefited him alone, not all his people.

“Bruce Turner, a retired computer analyst, says Nat Turner, his great-great-great grandfather, is a hero because ‘he saw an opportunity to try to correct something that was an extremely bad – evil.’ He believes Nat Turner was a freedom fighter who started a movement that helped end the institution of slavery. ‘Prior to the insurrection, slave owners actually believed that the slaves were happy in their condition,’ he says. ‘Nat Turner changed that.’” Turner is responding to 60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper’s question: “Is Nat Turner a hero?”

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) preaches the gospel while his owner (left) and patron (right) listen.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) preaches the gospel while his owner (left) and patron (right) listen.

All it takes is one. Turner’s brief yet effective counterargument made slave owners insecure and nervous for the rest of their days. In 48 hours, more white people were killed than at any other time in antebellum history.

The director stirs latent genetic memories with the work. “Birth” is not a pleasant somatic excursion. There is nothing redemptive about this period. Slavery was violent. This country, founded on such violence, continues to sample this song and this story. “Strange Fruit” takes on eerie and prescient meaning in “Birth.”

The atrocities then and now are connected to the absence of agency granted to Black bodies. This troubles the young Nat, according to Charles Burnett’s documentary, “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property” (2002), but he is well-trained, so he continues to turn the other cheek and close his mind’s eye to these viscerally painful contradictions. He is mute when a friend asks, “Where is your God now?” after the wife of the man played by actor Coleman Domingo is raped by his master’s guest.

Turner later trembles when he cannot protect his own wife, yet bows his head and continues to obey. We wonder where this fortitude is located.

“Birth” is not a pleasant somatic excursion. There is nothing redemptive about this period. Slavery was violent. This country, founded on such violence, continues to sample this song and this story. “Strange Fruit” takes on eerie and prescient meaning in “Birth.”

Yet, once Nat realizes that his faith was not absolute, that he’d been standing on half-truths and lies, he begins to remember the dreams and nightmares from childhood and the predictions regarding his greatness and the prophecy waiting to be fulfilled, what his father told him about greatness. So Nat, 31, calls a meeting, then waits for a sign. The bloody corn on screen, the solar eclipse and other details highlighted in the film figure authentically in the historic story.

I do not think it a coincidence that Nate Parker, 36, would direct this film, which stars Black American actors. It is an important story only a man who grew up in a community not far removed from the events of this story could tell, and tell well. Parker’s young mother, 17, might have also contemplated what kind of life her son would inherit when she decided to keep him. The same is true of the actual Nat Turner’s mother, who had decided not to bring a child into captivity.

There is a spirit that resides in place which haunts these spaces when unresolved issues remain unaddressed. It is not by chance that all the slave shacks were burned down following the insurrection, the county seat Jerusalem renamed, yet the sight of a beheading of a rebellious African remains.

“[T]he street located outside Courtland, Virginia, bears the name Blackhead Signpost Road” because a severed head was placed on a post at the crossroad, according to National Geographic. The only trace of Nat Turner is a small sign on a road.

His silencing was nearly completed, yet with a film whose title conjures D.E. Griffith’s 1915 “Clansman,” renamed “The Birth of a Nation,” Nat Turner is back. A conversation about Black resistance can and does challenge Black victimhood. Parker’s “Birth” could be seen philosophically as a rebirth, a rebirth of a Black nation still connected to its African heritage and to a legacy larger than this temporary episode called slavery.

“Birth” is a reminder of humanity’s capacity and right to freedom at all costs. Parker’s film is counter-narrative or aesthetic response, and its tremor certainly shifts the scale. His “Birth” is a revolutionary story. The symbol or principle the rebel represents is justice or Maat.

At a time when Black men are being gunned down indiscriminately or captured then enslaved, at a time when the front runner for president has a white supremacist as chief advisor, at a time when the largest prison strike in history is proceeding unnoticed due to media silence – Nat Turner might be what it takes to stir the waters just a bit, enough to start a tidal wave, just enough to make those on the ground think creatively about military strategy.

The Black Panther Party was successful for a reason. Party members bore arms and knew how to use them. This in itself leveled the judicial hierarchy until Gov. Reagan passed laws which made it illegal to do so.

“Birth” is a story of resistance and self-defense situated within the context of a Black or African spiritual system. Dreams and visions reoccur throughout the film. A worried mother takes a young Nat to the elders for a reading. Later, he recalls their prophecy as he stands painted in ritual white clay at the center of the crossroads.

The sacred and profane inhabit this world, a world repulsive and inhuman. Somehow, though, African ancestors knew the known world was not the only world and that white people were not in charge. Seeing beyond these temporal barriers, our ancestors found hope and resisted. Turner’s Nat, whom he portrays with sensitivity and authenticity, is supported by an excellent cast featuring Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union in supporting roles.

The director says of his film, which opened Oct. 7 nationally, to arts critic Brennan Williams, Huffington Post: “I honestly think this is a film that could start a conversation that can promote healing and systemic change in our country. There’s so many things that are happening right now in 2015 – 100 years after the original ‘Birth of a Nation’ film, here we are. I’d say that is what I hope sets my film apart is that it’s relevant now – that people will talk about this film with the specific intention of change.”

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.

[i] Gray White, Deborah (2013). “Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans.” New York Bedford, St. Martin’s, p. 225

[ii] Read http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2016/08/what-would-nat-turner-do/2/.

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