I was torn about whether or not to see Birth of a Nation (2016), after the controversy surrounding its director/screenwriter/star Nate Parker. Part of me wanted to side with my girlfriend, who refuses to see it due to allegations women have made against Parker and his refusal to show any remorse or apologize for his past. However, due to my deep interest in American Studies, I did see it, and when I saw it, I had a hard time separating art from reality, especially in the scenes that depict violence against women to illustrate the brutality of the institution of slavery. If I can separate the director/screenwriter/star from the work of art itself, I will say it has some haunting scenes and good character development, especially the evolution of Nat Turner’s character and what led to his 48-hour slave rebellion in Virginia. Furthermore, Turner’s evolution as a preacher is just as fascinating. He was initially used by white plantation owners/slave owners to preach the word of God and make slaves fearful of rebellion, quoting passages in the Bible to keep them in line. However, as he travels from plantation to plantation and witnesses the horror of slavery first hand, including one owner who uses a tool to knock out the teeth of a slave who refuses to eat, he eventually uses the Bible as a means to support a slave rebellion, especially after his wife is raped is left for dead. One of my favorite scenes i is when Turner goes toe to toe with a white preacher who tries to use the Bible to reinforce the institution of slavery. Turner refutes the white preacher’s passages with other verses that support equality and freedom for all.
There are other scenes worth noting. The way “Strange Fruit” is used in one of the final scenes is one of the most chilling and memorable scenes that I’ve viewed in a while. I disagree with some reviews, including The New Yorker’s, that said too much of the film is action-packed and feels like a Marvel movie. The actual rebellion involves a lot of blood and violence, but that’s only about the last 30 minutes of the film, maybe even less. I do agree with both The New Yorker and The Nation’s reviews, however, that the role of women in the film is pretty diminished, which is important to note considering the controversy surrounding Parker. This isn’t the case in other recent films that address similar parts of American history. In 12 Years a Slave, we have Patsy, a full-developed character who endures some pretty awful violence but maintains her spirit, for the most part. Patsy also has a large chunk of screen time. In Selma, Coretta Scott King plays an important, behind-the-scenes role, even meeting with Malcolm X to determine how both sides can work together to get a Voting Rights Act. It’s also important to note that The Nation’s review lists some major historical inaccuracies, including the fact Nat Turner never killed his owner, nor was the rebellion betrayed by a young slave boy. That said, there are plenty of haunting, powerful scenes. When I left the theater, however, I felt queasy, still thinking about the controversy surrounding the one responsible for retelling/rewriting The Birth of a Nation film and for witnessing a few graphic scenes that do their best to show the brutality of slavery.