I cannot recall when I have ever dreaded viewing a film. I’ve attended numerous 24-hour horror film marathons during which I knew I would be subjected to films handpicked to twist the knife of political sensibilities, films so graphic and nihilistic I cannot give their titles in unguarded company. The guilt from even accidentally convincing anyone to watch such fare would be too great, and yet I did not shudder in anticipation of their rape scenes or their violence. I have been anxious about films as they spooled out, but never before one started.
And then, attending a screening of Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation last night, I spent much of my day cycling through every life decision that brought me to that place.
I have an abnormally high tolerance for offensive things: police abuse videos, bad films, racist microaggressions, Howard Stern, the average person on the internet. It is a trait I actively hone so that I can delve into the things that I disapprove of or hate or wish to destroy and learn how they tick, and how I might tick in response. It’s more inoculation than exposure therapy. Sometimes the end result looks like a platform, and sometimes it’s a record of an experiment, a searching, a self-analysis or restructuring. I don’t subscribe to the Prime Directive of non-interference in these experiments. These are, after all, journeys and struggles that belong to me in real ways and whose effects I will have to live with, win or fail. I’m always attempting to discover something, not just to write a compelling essay, but to live a compelling life. And because of my aforementioned regimen of regularly dipping into the offensive, crass, petty, and wrong, I am able to weather a great deal that might otherwise intend me harm. I try to do the right thing by my art and politics, almost always. I certainly believe that what I’m doing as an artist, critic, social scientist, and activist exists for the right reasons. I may not always have the resolve, resources or even desire to do the right thing, or to do a thing the right way, but I almost always want to. Some days I’m on fire. Some days I ain’t worth a dime. I try to live in the humanity of my ideas, not the idea of my humanity. Dissection is what I do instead of meditation. It’s how I’m wired.
If this all sounds like I’m making excuses for having seen a film that a lot of people refuse to, rest assured I am not. I am explaining why I saw this film for those of you for whom such explanations are germane to receiving anything else I might have to say about it. I won’t rehash the many issues and angles wrapped around the film’s release due to the revitalized investigation into Nate Parker’s rape case from college. If you’re reading this there is almost zero chance that you don’t know what those issues and angles are already. You might not know that there has been rampant dialogue among black people about whether or not the film should be supported or seen at all. Well, there was. And there will be all over again when the movie officially comes out next month. But let’s be clear: the Nate Parker discussion doesn’t boil down to a decision about whether or not to see the movie. That decision is part of that discussion, but it’s not the endgame. The endgame is how we as a society process, prioritize and respond to rape. THAT’S what this is about. If all of this is still coming down to a decision about a movie for you, then you’re way off.
As I entered the theater an older black usher said, “Enjoy the film.” I am sure that was more muscle memory than suggestion. I was struck by the number of black people at the screening. At twenty minutes before showtime the auditorium wasn’t half full and black people definitely outnumbered the white folks. Only a handful of us were men, literally: at that point in the pre-show, of the 35 black people seated so far only 7 of us were men. Something in me thinks that was as it should be. The thoughts, experiences and criticisms of black women should stand in a certain place in the argumentative hierarchy on how to approach not only this film, but the man behind it. A friend of mine mentioned he was actively following the lead of black women as part of his decision making process about whether or not to see the film. It was a consideration I definitely better understood in the room than without.
There were people present who clearly had no problem seeing the film as a film only, who were not concerned about what issues swirl around it or what anyone else thinks of how they spend their time. They are patrons of the arts, my good sir, and this isn’t revolution, but cinema. Five minutes before lights out and a part of me needed that room to recognize the weight of the moment the way that I did, even though I knew I was asking for too much. Unfairly, in fact. Each of us had made our own personal decisions to see the film for any myriad of reasons and it was inappropriate to assume their motives. I had no insight into their moral or artistic positions.
Except for the white woman in front of me. I knew exactly what she thought.
The white woman in front of me was a prototypical member of the Wexner Center for the Arts, a hardcore art patron. She knows the usher next to my row by name. She knows and is known by other people in the room. She speaks with them about the Center and the season and the books on the bestseller lists she’s burning through (which she buys, not borrows). If high end art patronage has gang signs, she could throw them quick, and I am convinced she did. She declares, unbidden, that she does not care about the controversy of the director. “He is over here,” she indicates with her hands to her left, and then, moving her hands, “…and the film is over here.” She is unmoved by Parker’s controversy, and I imagine by any artist’s controversies. Art is art and whatever isn’t art in relation to it is, at best, dinner fodder. She notes that there won’t be previews, and thank God for that, because time, you know.
What luxury, to be inoculated against even the possibility of concerning one’s self with the parallels of privilege and atrocity depicted in both a work of art and its creator.
Sitting there it began to dawn on me that I may have made a mistake. Not in choosing to see the film, but to do so under those conditions, surrounded by the rich and the cinephile and the casual. I considered that if I were going to stand firm on seeing the film that I should have done so surrounded by people who at least possessed the potential to be affected the way that I was affected, or better, no one at all. Despite claims of being sold out (meaning all tickets given to patrons, not sold. No one got a dime of my money), the theater was half empty by the time the film started. Perhaps my people opted to stay at home instead, pondering the intersection of art and morality over lighter Tuesday night fare.
A speaker took the stage to introduce the film. The lights dimmed. The film happened to me. I steeled myself for certain scenes that, as it turned out, had either been edited out or simply didn’t have the impact I expected them to. I immediately became conscious of its technical shortcomings. I had prepared myself to be emotionally walloped and conflicted by a great piece of art that perhaps I had no political business seeing, and instead was subjected to something else entirely. I was treated to a film that is barely decent and whose saving grace is that it is audacious enough to be about Nat Turner. There is more controversy about this film off the screen than on it, and that shouldn’t be possible with a film about Nat Turner.
To that controversy:
The scene that most people feel would have caused the greatest discussion right now – the rape of Turner’s wife by the ready-made act one villains – was cut from the film. Implied, but not shown. Full disclosure: I cannot speak clearly as to whether or not this was a wise decision because too much swirls around it for me. Anticipating this scene, I knew it would be the part of the film that brought to the edge of all my considerations about rape, the film, and Parker. That scene would have been the keenest intersection of why I and others were there, what this film might have to offer in the long run, and how Parker should be considered not only as a director, but as a person, and by history. Without that scene, none of those angles engages the others as clearly as they were meant to. We are left with a film that, almost literally, does what Parker did with his own case: attempts to remove the stain of rape from his personal narrative; and does so for almost the same reasons Parker wants us to use in the real world: to get to the parts he wants you to see. Take this unflinching look at what was done to my people, but don’t take an unflinching look at what I did to people.
Well, that’s a big ask, Nate Parker.
Part of me believes it was wrong to edit the scene out of the film. If a stated goal of the film is to generate discussion, let the film be the film and generate all of its potential discussions. Let us arrive at that crossroad and examine not only slavery, but rape culture, white gaze and privilege, art, personal accountability…let us make all of our decisions in as much light as can be had. It’s not like not having the scene in the film is going to make people forget about Parker’s case. In fact it makes it look like he’s running from the fight, which is a mistake. His proximity to this issue paralleling the film would be a potentially profound foundation for how we as a society, and black people in the specific, navigate the issue of rape. I know it’s a big ask, bigger even than what he’s asking of us as an audience, but therein lies an answer. Maybe not THE answer, but an answer. Without it, and without Parker standing next to it to address it directly and with conviction, there can only be certain discussions. The problem with the rape scene wasn’t that it existed. The problem was that someone who raped a woman who can’t admit to what he did created it. There is a lot of work – maybe even good, real anti-rape work – that can happen in that admission. But without the scene in the context of the film Parker is unlikely to be compelled in the long run to stand up to the task, and I don’t trust him to do it on his own without it regardless of how many daughters he has. I get that the film is not primarily about rape, or at least not rape as Parker is supposedly learning to define it. But it was a regular aspect of slave life, it is a regular aspect of modern life, and Birth of a Nation has, through an uncommon set of circumstances, found itself on the front lines of the issue. The rape scene is the bargaining chip Parker and his crew understands, and if he is serious about addressing the issue moving forward, a PSA and some donations ain’t going to cut it.
And yet, even as I type all of that, I shake my head. I think about the rest of the film – the low-budget quality, the thudding script, the comic relief, the cardboard characters, the pulled punches – and I do not want to see that rape scene. I do not want to see the rape scene the just-woke-enough Nate Parker has to offer. I wouldn’t actually want to see it even if he hadn’t done what he did in college, and seeing the film around that missing scene only exacerbates that dread. It’s clear that he not only doesn’t understand rape culture, but he doesn’t understand how to make a Nat Turner film. I am ultimately left being glad the scene isn’t in the film, but not for the reasons I had walking in the door.
Art does not owe us good people. It owes us its message and values. That bad people can make great or meaningful art isn’t new information. However, we are not always as conveniently armed with that information as we were with Parker and Birth, and that is why this moment is different than, say, a Woody Allen or Bill Cosby moment. Each of us gets to decide for once if we will partake of the art before it happens to us. And were it not a film about Nat Turner I very likely might have made a different decision. This isn’t the same moment as all of the moments when we retroactively discover a sin after the fact, weigh the psychic cost, and then are compelled to find ways to wash our hands. Even then, the most important part of that equation is the psychic cost. I cannot carry yours and you certainly cannot carry mine, but it is real and it has the weight of a real thing.
More on that psychic cost in a minute. For now, I want to show you how Parker proves he can’t be trusted.
There aren’t a lot of hard facts on Nat Turner, and even the most outlandish portrayals throughout history (Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner most notably) have notable proponents (Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates). What concerned me here is that Parker’s film fills in the gaps of history more with missed opportunities than insights. While I appreciate that he opted not to paint Turner as a religious maniac infatuated with white women, he failed to give us a Turner any more realized or possessing a deeper motivation than the titular protagonist of Django Unchained.
Which brings us to another missed opportunity: religion. The shots it takes with Christianity and the role of religion in enslavement are paramount to any telling of Turner’s story, and there is a lot that can be mined out of how that institution may have informed Turner’s revolt. Parker tries to make the symbiotic slavery/religion arrangement ironic and compelling, and for the most part succeeds, but then dumps it almost entirely for action mode, or at least doesn’t sell it in earnest. By the end, much of the power of the observation is buried, and the low-budget Last Temptation of Christ ending doesn’t fill the thematic hole left here.
Birth buckles under the ham-fistedness of its caricatures, substituting paint by numbers tropes of every person in the script for pre-programmed responses and emotions. Even the casting plays too much in this regard: anytime you see Roger Guenveur Smith in a movie you’ve got a fifty-fifty shot of him playing an over the top Uncle Tom. You know on sight that Jackie Earle Haley is going to play a chew-spitting psychopath. You rarely hire guys like this to carry your rom-com, and the film suffers from these kind of on-the-nose theatrics. Not that the women in this film fare much better. The ones marked for rape – Gabrielle Union and Aja Naomi King – are traditional Hollywood flawless beauties designed to show you how tragic rape is, as if it needed any help. This is one of numerous times while watching the film that I thought 12 Years a Slave – a superior film in almost every way – dealt with the same issues better. In 12 Years, rape isn’t reserved for the pretty; it is a crime of power yielded over the helpless, and at power’s whim and convenience. Power is not picky about its victims. You cannot rise above power’s lust, you cannot hide under being not-as-cute. Birth doesn’t have these edges. There’s plenty of blame to go around Parker’s set on this one, but the casting was suspect right out the gate. The actors mentioned here are great actors, but this film totally telegraphed its punches by using them in these roles. I vacillated between trying to figure out if Parker was shooting for some kind of resonance here with these choices or if their casting was just indulgent rookie mistakes. In the end, I decided Parker simply wasn’t politically savvy enough to make this film good, that he is unable to read the needs of the time (then or now), and that realization hit me when the worst thing that could have happened in a Nat Turner movie actually did.
Half of the audience belly-laughed.
There is laughter that pops-up in the watching of a slave movie sometimes, almost exclusively under the purview of black audiences, but it is not a comic laugh. It is a “dammmmmmn” kind of chuckle, an “oh shit”, fist to mouth kind of moment. It is not that the action or scene is funny. It’s just a response to a tense situation. Black people are not divorced from these projects. This is our history. This is how we got here. This is why we speak English and invent things. Every black person that watches one of these movies gains fifty pounds of psychic heaviness for two hours, and is constantly trying to catch their breath from underneath that antebellum weight. When Kunte Kinte breaks into an OJ Simpson-worthy run in the original Roots, we catch that breath. When Django shoots house slave Stephen in the knees, we catch that breath. We aren’t laughing because these films aren’t comedies (well, Django comes close). We’re laughing at the thing passing for justice in that moment, or relief, or comeuppance.
That’s not the kind of laughter or scene I’m talking about in Birth of a Nation.
During a scene when Turner is preaching and his love interest comes into the back of the barn, he stumbles on his words in a schoolboy crush way. When the scene further extended the joke by having Nat condense his planned sermon down to a mere few lines so he could spend time with her, the laughs kept coming. It wasn’t an accidental moment of humor: it was a full-on comic scene. At that point I knew I was in the hands of a political amateur and wanted to bolt. You should have almost no cause to laugh during the course of a film about Nat Turner. If this was Parker’s idea of how Nat Turner should be handled, what else might be lurking in this movie?
Perhaps the most glaring pulled punch in this film is how Parker portrayed the revolt itself. As violence goes, you’ve seen worse, but I’m referring less to the degree of violence and more to the message of the violence. History tells us that victims of the revolt included women and children. Birth shows no instances of this, and the film is considerably weaker for it. We get shots of black women and children hanging in trees, but not their parallel. Parker – with his splashes of comic relief, dashing midnight romantic stances, and flattened motivations – attempts to keep the audience rooting for Turner, even sympathetic. Not to his cause, mind you, but the man himself. This is a gross intellectual mistake. What history does not make explicit about Turner’s motives the revolt makes very clear: slavery was inhumanly wrong at every level, infecting the very core of America’s existence, and any part of such an insidious system was evil by association. Just because you weren’t holding the whip or you “did okay” by your slaves did not absolve you of your part in that machine. More to the point, Turner shouldn’t be an entirely sympathetic character. The history of his actions should give people on all sides pause. It is the nuclear option, and nobody gets away clean in a nuclear war…except, apparently, in the last film in which this should be true. In the end, Parker gives us a revolt that everyone can agree was well deserved, which isn’t how audiences should be allowed to perceive the lessons of this part of history. If America weren’t still laboring under the gears of slavery’s dividends it’d be a different story. In any event, I shouldn’t be the one walking out of Birth of a Nation uneasy.
Now hold up, ‘Merica, before you get riled up: rest assured, nothing in Birth is going to compel black protest, let alone anarchy or race wars. Black people see videos of real state-sanctioned murder all of the time right now. We’ve been putting Nat Turner in rap songs for decades. If black people were coming for skin, we’d have done that a long time ago, and this movie won’t change that. On the contrary, we live in a time when many black people decry the existence of yet another slavery film altogether out of emotional exhaustion. Mind you, as of this writing, slavery has a weekly television show (Underground). Slavery had a hardcore reboot (Roots, 2016). Slavery won a Best Picture of the Year Oscar two years ago (12 Years a Slave). For a brief and ridiculous moment, slavery was even an action figure (the short-lived Django Unchained line). Slavery isn’t the subject matter you need to be worried about. When we start making movies about sexy black inventors, then you can circle the wagons.
People have said that this film is important, beyond even whatever you think of Nate Parker. I disagree. I was able to weather the Parker bubble around this film and can attest that it is not only not important, but sorely overrated. If this weren’t a Nat Turner film – say it were a caprice in the same vein as Roots or Underground – this movie wouldn’t be seen as being any more important than anything else in the slavery cinematic canon. It’s not even the first mainstream movie about a slavery-era uprising. It just happens to be the one about the uprising we all know and were raised to believe America was too scared to acknowledge. There is nothing cinematically outstanding about it on almost any level, so much so that while watching it I kept wondering if I was missing something. I certainly wasn’t missing The Moment. I carried The Moment into the theater with me. As a black man in America I live The Moment, am always on the lookout for the next Moment, the Moment as spirit of the times materializing in some new way, some twist on a new case, some telling story in the news that shows us all once again how far America has to go. Birth is a film of such derivativeness and cheap shots that it ruins The Moment.
What is ultimately important about this film? What makes it indispensable? It isn’t good enough to resonate. It isn’t historically accurate enough to educate. It mutes – literally and figuratively – the subject of rape. Slavery is already well-worn territory (it is seemingly the only subject of modern black films critics seem able to praise), and Birth does nothing new with the subject, unless one counts a feeding torture I don’t recall seeing in any other slavery film. Everything else you’ve probably seen; it just wasn’t attributed to a character called “Nat Turner” before. What does this film offer the conversation of racism and the legacy of slavery besides being able to check the Nat Turner box on the black movie bucket list? There are better movies about slavery – more nuanced, better made, less self-aware and self-important – than this. Birth of a Nation is important in name only.
So about that psychic cost.
The movie ends, the credits roll, we leave. I don’t stay to see who the grips or set designers are. I don’t participate in the post-film group discussion. I rant and argue about it in the car with my wife, more to begin building my points for this essay than harboring any genuine investment in winning the debate. I enter my home sullen and tired and angry, only to discover that another black person has been shot and killed by a police officer (third victim this week to make national headlines), this time in Charlotte. Keith Lamont Scott – 43 years old, married with seven children – was shot while waiting for his son to get out of school by Officer Brentley Vinson. Scott’s family says he was unarmed and reading a book. Considering the movie spends no small amount of time focused on the power of literacy, I find it beyond ironic.
As I write this, Charlotte is protesting in the streets, facing off against police, their community in disarray. It’s not a revolt, but it is a message. All protests are messages. America is lucky black people are really only fighting to be treated equally. Considering a black person is shot by police at an average of every 28 hours, we could be asking for more.
We could be asking for what it owes.