In watching The Birth of a Nation I was a little destroyed. There’s so much to unpack. Nat Turner is a legendary figure in the Black community — a former slave who removed his own shackles. It’s a story I’ve wanted to see on screen for a long time. The reviews out of Sundance were huge. Then, news of Nate Parker rape charges and acquittal broke. I debated a long time about whether or not to cover the story when I came to TIFF. Eventually, I decided that a film this prominent and this culturally invested couldn’t be ignored. I have mixed feelings about what I saw. I’m going to take it slow.
First, I will say I cried through this entire film. It strikes every emotional trigger. Turner is threatened with death as a child for looking a white man in the eye. I thought of Freddie Grey and Tamir Rice. Turner was later threatened for talking to a white woman. He was trying to return a toy to her child. He was beaten with a stick. An instant flashback of Sandra Bland hit me full force.
There are two rapes in the film. Both happen off camera. One thing this film nails is the portrayal of Black suffering. It is impossible to escape the number of real and imagined Blacks in pain. The Birth of a Nation moved some of the graphic images off screen, using the palpable fear of the moment to paint the picture for the audience. For example, when Turner is whipped for daring to baptize a white man who felt he could turn nowhere else, we see Turner on his knees, his face, the whip, and the faces of his family around him. The people told the story instead of the lash.
But, Parker wasn’t afraid to show the horror of bondage. There’s a moment with a handheld camera on a porch. Nat Turner has just seen a slave on a hunger strike have his teeth chiseled out and be force-fed. Nat then has to preach obedience to the remaining slaves under the watchful eye of an oppressor and his vicious dog.
The truth of his submission and indeed the oppression of all those who look like him hits him with full force. An unsteady camera feels like trembling hands. It’s like the first time a teacher makes a racist remark to a student. The student knows they’re not supposed to disobey. They know that. But, they can’t quite process the level of hate they’ve just experienced. Their eyes are opened and it’s painful. This moment, the acting, directing, the score all come together to make a powerful statement.
There’s a particularly gut-wrenching moment where a monarch butterfly lands on the body of a beautiful baby boy hanging from a tree. “Too many babies in suits,” a line from Noname’s album Casket Pretty slammed through my brain as I tried not to sob. Strange Fruit echoes over the audience.
The film read like a love letter to African Americans today. As Turner’s about to charge into battle he says his brothers are making their ancestors and future kin proud. A strong message resonates: we know your struggle, we see your pain, and despite all of it, you too shall rise. This is a message I’ve been hungry for, which makes the next things I have to write difficult.
This film’s depiction of Black women falls so short of the mark it’s embarrassing. Nat Turner is depicted as a god-king. Touched at birth and prophesied for greatness. Which, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. It makes for the beginning of a great fairy tale. But this isn’t a fairy tale and it isn’t presented as one. This really happened. Turner was a real human being. And as Turner says when he argues for the right to baptize the white man, “No man is free of sin.”
Unfortunately, we never see Turner sin. He is depicted as the smartest, kindest, forthright human being to ever walk the planet. In the same way, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and every other human ever, was beautifully flawed. We must know that Turner, no matter what hope he has given to his people, was not a god. He was a man doing his best under the worst of situations. His best included slaughter of infants and children. Parker shouldn’t be allowed to erase that from history. If the story is to be told, tell the whole damn thing.
To that same effect, we cannot erase the roles Black women have played in the revolution. The two main Black female characters exist entirely to serve Turner. His mother, Nancy Turner, played so beautifully by Aunjanue Ellis, is kind and gentle and always saying goodbye. She says goodbye when he’s brought into the house to learn to read. She says goodbye when he goes to other plantations to preach.
But when she should say goodbye, when he begins his rebellion, she says simply, “I’m proud of you.” I’m sure Ms. Turner was proud. However, she lost her husband in a similar fashion. He snuck off the plantation at night to feed his starving son. The film depicts this loss as great one. So, it would follow there would be some trepidation on Ms. Turner’s part as her son charged into a much bloodier battle.
Why must her son be the one to lead the revolution? Was Nat sure the plan was fool proof? Who would be fighting along side him? Were they smart and capable men? Could she stand by his side as he charged into battle? But she neither asks nor shows signs of questioning. She is complicit and this is at odds with most Black mothers who are often eager to throw themselves in harm’s way if their baby can get even a second more to breath.
Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry Anne, played by Aja Naomi King, is the same way. The way they fall for one another is so Hollywood. He saves her from the slave block. He courts her easily and there is never a debate, argument, or struggle in their relationship. This love story is forced into the film to give Turner justification for his actions. Once again I have mixed feelings. It is so wonderful to see Black love on the screen. King is so passionate and fierce in her role. My fingers are crossed for an Oscar nom because she earned it. I just wish Cherry’s rape wasn’t the catalyst for Turner to fight back. Isn’t being in bondage enough of a reason?
And then there’s a scene that gave me the wrong kind of goose bumps. Turner rides up on horseback. It’s dark and Cherry is working. She can’t see who is coming and she calls out, “who’s there,” with a tremble in her voice. A tall muscular figure emerges from the fog. It’s Nat. He steals a kiss and proposes. It’s meant to be romantic, but I was entirely taken out of the picture and made me feel very icky. As a woman who has walked Chicago’s streets late at night, this scene was disturbingly familiar. With Nate Parker’s own rape allegations floating around, I really think they should have cut or reshot this scene. It’s terrifying.
Later, after Cherry is assaulted she tells Turner not to run after the three men who raped her. She quotes biblical scripture about living and dying by the sword. But, then, when Nate says he’s called to fight she gives her blessing. The lack of worry, the full trust placed in Nat further calls to his god-king portrayal. A woman can support her man and question how he is going to accomplish his goal. I simply can’t believe only one slave questioned Turner’s plans. I don’t buy that Cherry would simply smile and say OK, especially after being depicted as a strong fighter.
The worst portrayal of a woman is Esther, played by Gabrielle Union. I want to commend Union for her performance. For years Union’s spoken up about her own attack. She asked that Ester’s lines be removed in order to better represent the millions of silenced women who have been sexually assaulted. I know this role meant the world to her. But cinematically speaking, it doesn’t quite work.
What we see of Ester is this: her wedding to Hark (Coleman Domingo), Ester walking out the big house after being raped; Ester crying as Hark holds her. What are we meant to learn? She’s not a person. We don’t see her before or after. She’s a thing to be raped and with Cherry having already been through this drama it seems rather redundant to play it out again. It would have been nice to know Esther. What makes her laugh? What does she dream of? What’s her a favorite food? I would take anything that would give us some insight into her as a person. But all we know is she was raped.
The men get their revenge. Hark cuts the head of Ester’s rapist off. Nat gets his rebellion and the women get nothing. They stay on the sidelines as caretakers and cheerleaders. Then they watch as their loved ones are killed.
The worst of it is, only the men helped with the rebellion if this film is to be believed. No woman took up arms for her freedom. We don’t see the women trying to keep the children safe and hidden and quite; a difficult task for anyone who’s ever had to watch even one child for 48 hours. Why are women left out? Why do they have no agency? Why are Black women continuously left out of the story of our liberation? It’s an unacceptable practice that has to end. Now.
There are two honest portrayals in the film and they come from the most unfortunate of places; the house slave, Isaiah, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, and plantation owner Sam Turner, played by Armie Hammer.
When we first seem Sam he’s a sweet boy who enjoys playing with his friend Nat. Their separate stations are known to one another but is depicted as unimportant to the duo. You have to be taught to hate. But, when Turner Senior dies Sam is left as head of the house. He marries off his sister and sends his mother with her so there’s, “less feet under (his) table.”
We see him turn quickly to liquor. His adoration for his friend turns to condemnation as he questions how Nat could know what a good price on a slave is. He becomes agitated when Nat embarrasses him in front of another slave owner. He curses Nat when he tries to stop the rape of Esther. And finally, he has Nat beaten for baptizing a white man. With each step further from his childhood self, Sam descends further into alcoholism, alienate his family, and begins to implode.
Don’t get it twisted, you’ll feel no sympathy for Sam, but at least he has an arc. At least he is a full person, neither devil nor angel, but a man making the decisions he feels are best. This is what makes a good story and it’s completely missing from all of the Black characters except the house slave.
Isaiah senses the winds changing. He knows Nat and some of the others want to rebel. But he has taken no sides. He is a survivor and he knows what they’re doing is suicide. When Nat kills Sam, Isaiah is distraught. “We’re all dead,” he laments. The film plays him as yellow-bellied, weak, afraid, and unwilling to fight. But he’s the most reasonable character on screen. The desire to fight, to stand up for yourself after years of watching your family treated with nothing but brutality cannot be denied. But to show no fear while doing it makes you a fool. Maybe Nat Turner was a fool. Most brave men and geniuses are, but then why not call that out? Why not explore the hopelessness of such a plan? Just one person did. The house slave. Of course.
There’s also a great moment of redemption for the film and a small character with a big part. This is the big spoiler in an article full of spoilers, but feel free to skip the next paragraph if you don’t want the end ruined.
A young boy Jasper, played by Kai Norris, had initially joined the rebellion. He runs back to his master in fear when he watches a fellow soldier cut the head off a white man. Later, he watches in horror as Turner’s executed. But we’re given a final image of him as a man, charging forward in a Union uniform. Parker has said that Turner isn’t the hero of the film. It’s Jasper. He is supposed to be the way in for the youth. This is the conclusion of the letter, every battle fought might not be won, but we can learn from past mistakes and try again. This is a beautiful end to a frustrating film.
The most depressing thing about The Birth of a Nation is this could have been an amazing film. The story of Nat Turner is inspirational; a great man fighting not for himself, but for all of his people. No longer willing to take what is given, but demanding his freedom. It’s a story I hope will be remade with more thoughtfulness in the future.
Joelle Monique is currently a podcaster and contributing writer for Black Girl Nerds and is a co-host for AfterBuzz. Her main goals have been to discuss diversity in nerd-pop culture and create a dialogue among fans via social media. Follow her on twitter @JoelleMonique